A little bit of Molly Shannon convergence for me today. The AV Club did their 11 Questions thing with her today. And that reminded me to check how she did in Grantland’s latest pointless “Best of…” pop culture bracket: this time to rank the “best” SNL cast-members of all time. Predictably enough, the women are not doing so well. Predictable not because many of the women on SNL over the years weren’t great but because both Grantland’s writers and its readers are mostly men. It’s not just that Gilda Radner “lost” to Bill Murray, it’s how many fewer votes she got (7,739 to 23,036); it’s also that Chris Farley is in the final eight for some reason and that Jan Hooks went out to goddamned Rob Schneider. Anyway, despite all this I’m not surprised or upset that Molly Shannon went out early (though it shouldn’t have been to that putz Jimmy Fallon)—there is something about the blend of essential sweetness and discomfiting, off-kilter commitment in many of her characters that I always enjoyed but I didn’t always enjoy all of the sketches they were in .
This combination of qualities was perhaps, and not surprisingly, best utilized by Mike White in his first outing as a director, Year of the Dog and I’m going to take the opportunity to recycle the review I wrote of that film for a defunct group film blog some friends and I used to write once upon a time. I knew White from his collaborations with Miguel Arteta, the wonderful Chuck and Buck and the also quite good The Good Girl, both of which were written by White and directed by Arteta. (And if you haven’t seen any of these three films, I recommend them highly.) White’s perhaps had greater success than Arteta since but neither has quite fulfilled, I think, the promise of their first two films together. Anyway, this is just to set the context for some of the references in the piece I originally wrote in 2007 (hence also the comparison with Notes on a Scandal). A version of that piece (merging the review with some subsequent thoughts) now follows:
Year of the Dog is very good. Probably the weakest of White’s major films but still very good. It treads more on Chuck and Buck territory than on that of The Good Girl (the other two major films—the others he’s written seem like films he writes to be able to make these films) and doesn’t evoke either the discomfort of the former or the existential melancholy of the latter, but shares with both its comic generosity and refusal to judge or even take up predictable positions on the idiosyncrasies of its characters. As you may remember from the ads, this is about a woman who has few human relationships and all but falls apart when her dog suddenly dies. I’m not going to say too much more about the plot at this point except to note that, among other things, it functions as an antidote to the worldview of films such as Notes on a Scandal which cannot imagine the single, sexually inactive woman as anything but a sociopath in waiting. The protagonist of this film, Peggy, also engages in some fairly questionable behaviour, but its source is located elsewhere, in an over-abundance of love, not the lack of it.
What weakens the film is a tendency to present Peggy’s foils (especially her brother and sister-in-law, and some co-workers) in an overly sitcommy fashion—both in the characterizations and in the framing. Some of these characters swerve a little too close to caricature at points, though White always avoids making the easy laugh the payoff. Still, Regina King and her boyfriend seem to have walked onto the set from failed auditions for the roles of wacky young black people in The 40 Year Old Virgin or something. The scenes in the office are the weakest, and the portrayal of the boss suffers more than that of Peggy’s befuddled but supportive family from White trying a little too hard to show that even the seemingly normal people are all neurotic/obsessed. Or perhaps it’s Laura Dern’s wonderful performance as Peggy’s sister-in-law that makes the difference. And White does draw wonderful performances from much of the cast. Molly Shannon is amazing, as is John C. Reilly in a small role that starts out at the edge of caricature but is invested with a quiet dignity.
I think the film suffers also for two other reasons: 1) Peggy’s legal transgressions (at home and at work) are too major for the kind of easy rehabilitation she receives from everyone around her; perhaps White wants to underline a vision of a more generous world, but I think he overloads what she must be forgiven. And 2) there’s no Chuck here to Peggy’s Buck. What makes the first film so great is how it turns our identification with those two characters around. We buy Buck’s redemption there partly because it is balanced by the “fall” of Chuck. Here all we have is Peggy. While I didn’t find the final scenes so triumphant—White undercuts quite well any tendency we might have to see her as “healed”—I think the film lets everyone, including the audience, off too easy. White’s almost like a happy Todd Solondz.
On the whole, I think White would have been better served with Miguel Arteta handling the direction—there’s a tonal quality that the first two films have that this one doesn’t. But the writing is as strong as ever, and White steers away as always from the moralizing narrative of trauma as permanent disability. I’m saying this very badly, but what I’m trying to get at is that in Chuck and Buck and Year of the Dog the pathological is not the only or primary mode in which response to trauma is imagined.
Oh, as a warning: this film contains a few scenes which will be very hard for dog-lovers to watch (nothing graphic). And I actually wonder if I liked it so much because I started out with an identification with the protagonist’s absolute love of her dog, which not everyone may share.