23 April 2007 | Chris Knipp
It is surprising to realize that Mike White has not directed a film till now, because he's such a distinct film presence, but it's also disappointing that 'Year of the Dog' is such a distasteful and ultimately tedious effort, perhaps too much of a good thing. But 'Chuck and Buck' was also maddeningly irritating. In that, which White wrote, White himself played an extremely annoying, clueless gay man (which one would have thought was a rare commodity) who played around with another guy as a boy and then expects the man, who's grown up and straight, to be interested in his advances as an adult. The Good Girl was funnier. It depicted not just a single idea but more of a social world, and its Middle America dimwits were not handled too condescendingly; White's writing struck a balance, and Jake Gyllenhaal's character had some hilarious lines.
Mike White has done television, and wrote the very funny 'School of Rock' and the pretty funny 'Orange County.' He almost seems a formula writer (a successful one, in his TV writing and Orange County), except that his taste for the embarrassing and odd is recurrent and obvious. Chuck and Buck, which somehow seems White's signature effort, was one embarrassing scene after another. The question with 'The Good Girl' is, Are these people being made mean fun of, or are they being viewed sympathetically though they're a bit dumb? White has acted films he wrote and others, including the embarrassing, tasteless and borderline awful 'Star Maps,' directed by Miguel Arteta -- which at least led to a fruitful collaboration since Arteta directed White's Chuck and Buck and 'The Good Girl.'
People seemed to love 'Chuck and Buck.' They thought it was witty and edgy. I thought it was just embarrassing and borderline homophobic. No, make that out and out homophobic. White is involved in movies of the kind I like to call "Todd Solondz lite." In them strange people get involved in situations that are uncomfortable to watch, but it's never made clear what we're supposed to think; the filmmakers themselves don't seem to be able to make up their minds. White is just being a little different, avoiding either being earnest or being witty. The titillation people get out of his work is that they laugh, and then wonder if they're supposed to, and they find that interesting.
Year of the Dog is not earnest and it's not witty. It doesn't know what it wants to be or what its main character is meant to be. Can she be both ridiculous and pathetic? Can we laugh at her and still sympathize with her? Why would we want to sympathize? These are typical "Solondz lite" questions. Peggy (comedy actress Molly Shannon, and not a very interesting actress or someone you want to look at through a whole movie) is an office worker who has no life. She is forty-something but has never dated, and her emotional world begins and ends with her pet dog, Pencil. Pencil eats something he shouldn't and dies and Peggy is devastated. She begins behaving strangely, overacting her dog love. She starts helping out with people who get people to adopt dogs. She adopts a vicious German shepherd and gets a guy named Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) from the vet's to train him. When that leads to disaster on the canine and human fronts she becomes wackier. She steals funds from the office to donate to animal rights organizations and winds up adopting fifteen dogs from the pound. Along the way she has dated her neighbor, Al (John C. Reilly), who is contrasted with Newt. Newt is a sensitive soul who's also dysfunctional, "celibate," but unable to have a relationship "with a woman, or with a man." He's a vegan and Peggy becomes one, at that time imagining that she and Newt may become a couple. Al loves hunting and meat. Peggy gets into serious trouble, including a hostile situation with Newt, but then is forgiven and gets her job back despite embezzling company funds. If the story was turning dark at some points, it goes all mushy at the end. That is a routine "Solodnz lite" ending; but while such movies have at times been surprising and thought-provoking, this one is simply odd and irritating and hard to sit through.
There are excruciating things in 'Year of the Dog' but also implausible ones. It seems unlikely that Peggy's sister-in-law Bret (Laura Dern), who seems to represent the overprotective mother (and little else), should have a whole rack of fur coats, just to annoy Peggy. White is pushing around advocacies and dysfunctionalities randomly rather than representing reality or telling a story. One increasingly has the feeling of being inside a hermetic bubble containing White's preoccupations and observations that's completely artificial and not very interesting, just uncomfortable. This seems a hell of a way to make a movie, but people laugh at it, because they don't know what else to do, and the fact that they don't know why they're laughing makes them think this is an original kind of humor.