Review written by Nathan Vass
Note: this is a review of a October 2006 test print, which may or may not differ significantly from the final film.
Year of the Dog is, first and foremost, an animal lover's picture. It is not a romantic comedy, despite the way it will inevitably be marketed. It deserves to be associated with the genre only because it shares the same fluffy, unrealistic portrayal of human behavior so common among those films. While this picture does have its strong points, its faults eclipse them, and the print I saw contains an ending so extraordinarily ineffective that I have no doubt it will be completely reshot before it reaches the public.
The film certainly starts off with all the expected conventions of a romantic comedy- our main character, Peggy (Molly Shannon) is a likable single woman pretending not to look for love. She lives alone with her dog Shiloh, with whom she is very close to. She works at an unspecified office job, where her African-American coworker, on the verge of getting married, gives Peggy dating advice (why are these roles always ethnic?). Their boss is the very definition of stereotype, and the generally uncreative nature of the of these office scenes makes them quite boring. Not unexpectedly, Shiloh dies early on in the film, leaving Peggy with a dilemma. But what, exactly, is her dilemma? Does she need a new dog, or a new boyfriend? The script seems unsure of whether the love she needs is of the human or animal variety. She dates neighbor John C. Reilly, with disastrous results. Paul Thomas Anderson once said that every gesture and action Reilly makes is at least somewhat humorous, and that fact is on full display here. Unfortunately, the script prevents him from truly breaking out. Peggy does get a new dog, but it is large and dangerous, and no replacement for her cute Shiloh. Peter Sarsgaard plays a kind dog trainer brought in to help tame the new dog. The turn of events that occupy the remainder of the film are oddly depressing, particularly when one looks past the veneer of lame jokes and increasingly out-of-place comic relief.
There is such a thing I like to call "pet humor." The term refers to various mundane actions made by animals, usually pets, that certain people find funny. Nearly the entirety of Year of the Dog's "funny" moments are made up of pet humor. Scenes will pause themselves while the camera lingers on a dog peeing or eating, the filmmakers vainly hoping that the audience will split their sides laughing. My screening audience remained largely silent during these segments. Witnessing the visibly pained reaction shots of Molly Shannon laughing is a cringe-worthy experience. Now, it is understandable, I suppose, that these sorts of moments might be cute and endearing, but they shouldn't form the comedic backbone for a film purporting to be a romantic comedy. Pet humor is almost never hilarious, and only appeals to a limited segment of the population.
Humor, effective or not, won't be what audiences will be thinking about as they leave the theater after seeing this film, though. It's that ending. The film sets up a variety of various subplots- Peggy's relationship with her sister, played by Laura Dern; possible romances with John C. Reilly and Peter Sarsgaard; various problems at work with her supervisor; her struggles to find a new dog; and her friendship with her aforementioned coworker, whose impending marriage has some problems. I've never seen a film set up so many plot threads, only to abandon it all in favor of an ending that leaves everything that came before completely unresolved. The third act of the film finds Peggy growing more and more obsessed with animal rights, and this obsession slowly drives out all the other concerns of her life. The conclusion addresses none of the subplots mentioned above, foregoing all conceivable audience expectations of resolution, and deals only with Peggy's slightly unhinged obsession with animal cruelty.
To be sure, the film ends on a note relatively unprecedented in romantic comedies- that of utter unsatisfaction. Now, am I arguing against the creativity of going against expectations? Should stories only end in the way we expect them to? No, of course not. I applaud the filmmakers' decision to tackle difficult subject manner, if ineffectively; I also appreciate the casting of Molly Shannon, who is not attractive in the traditional sense, but endearing in a more human way. Mike White, the writer/director, may or may not be trying to do something original here; if he is, that's good, regardless of the level of failure of the final product.
Nor am I stating that a depressing ending is less desirable than a happy one; indeed, depressing films are often more powerful than films that end on a positive note. However, all films, depressing or not, must have some sort of catharsis at the end. There can't simply be a climax. There has to be a feeling of having gained new knowledge- in screenwriting classes, it's called a denouement. Incredibly, Year of the Dog has neither a climax nor a denouement; as I stated earlier, I am quite certain it will be retooled before release. Even with a satisfactory ending, however, I would be hard pressed to recommend the film. It is simply too meandering, mediocre, scattered, and downright dull a film to see, particularly when there are so many other terrific films crowding the marketplace.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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