Year of the Dog

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            “Year of the Dog” is not a Chinese movie. It is an American one, made in southern California and riddled with nonsense. It is a leaden comedy, an insult to audiences who stay in their seats in the hope that the writers may spring a good surprise. They don’t. So why review it? Partly to save you from the experience, partly to try to understand how anyone could have spent either money or time in the making of it. It takes its place neatly at number three on my list of worst movies – right after “Eight Heads in a Duffel Bag” and “Chicago Cab.”

            Both the premise and the first twenty minutes are promising. Peggy (Molly Shannon) is the office assistant to Robin (Josh Pais). She is the aunt of the two children of her brother Pier (Tom McCarthy) and his wife Bret (Laura Dern). She is the neighbor of Al (John C. Reilly), and the apparent soulmate of Newt (Peter Sarsgaard). She is a barely tolerated intrusion in all their lives – no emotional connection except with Newt who, sadly for Peggy, is gay.

            Saddled with this outsized inability to reach friends, co-workers, family, or possible lovers, Peggy pours her love into her beloved beagle, Pencil. The great dog name Pencil, by the way, is the most inspired note in this story. When Pencil dies, we wait expectantly for a change of direction. Who will Peggy love? What will happen to her at work? In life? The problem is this: when Pencil dies, so does the movie.

            The heroine, who seems pathetic and unfortunate rather than engaging and eccentric, tries to live with one terrible dog after another, plunges headlong into animal rights causes, and ends up taking in 15 dogs who are about to be euthanized. The scene of Peggy’s life with 15 hungry, salivating, badly behaved dogs in the living room of her ranch house sums up the whole problem. The dogs run wild; one poops on the hearth, the others shred pillows, pee on furniture, spill, break, knock over and ruin everything in their path – all at breakneck speed and for a prolonged period. The scene is heavy handed and elicits not laughter but an involuntary groan of “Yuk.”

            And the others? John C. Reilly has a funny moment as a confirmed hunter whose walls are hung with the trophy heads of animals he has killed. Brother Pier is moronic. Laura Dern’s Bret is quite funny as the protective mother in full armor in a non-stop monologue about parenting. If only there were a show to be stolen, it would be taken by Regina King as Layla, co-office worker who wants to help Peggy, to be her friend, and does her best to make it all happen. Layla’s spunky spirit could have sparked a fine team effort, but unfortunately her wonderful flair just makes her fellow actors and the script look pale.

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