Take Two

by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & Year of the Dog & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & "I & lt;/span & t's nice to have a word that can describe you," says Peggy (Molly Shannon), remarking on her newfound veganism, "I've never had that before." In writer and first-time director Mike White's story of a spinster secretary whose blithely uneventful life is thrown into chaos when her puppy Pencil gets into the neighbor's slug poison, just about everyone can be described in a single word. For most of the film's characters, that word is "stereotypical."

Peggy is first comforted by Al (John C. Reilly, who can do nothing with what he's given), the neighbor whose poison offed poor Pencil, leading to a date. Al doesn't work out, though, because he's a psychopath and a hunter (White's script doesn't bother to differentiate the two) who collects hella knives and wants nothing more than to kill and mount various endangered species. Peggy doesn't know what she wants in a guy, but it's not that.

She's next helped in her grief by animal-lover Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), who's so anti-exploitation that he won't even drink milk. Forced to choose between these extreme polls, Peggy goes vegan and pursues Newt. That doesn't go well. Peggy's been celibate out of social awkwardness. Newt's celibate for deeper, though unenumerated reasons.

Peggy's only office friends are a stereotype of the black couple. He's promiscuous and a cheater. She marvels, after he finally asks her to marry him that she's "not even pregnant or anything."

Despite her hopes, the word that describes Peggy isn't "vegan," it's "inexplicable." She and Pencil don't seem particularly close, but his death sends her into a spiral of self-destructive behavior. Well, kinda. She goes vegan, then she drinks a little bit, then she sabotages her relationship with her annoying brother and his infuriatingly neurotic wife (Laura Dern, absolutely terrifying). Eventually, she ends up adopting 13 dogs, living in filth, losing her job and, of course, pulling herself together and shooting off on a new, exciting and fulfilling life path. Great. It's just that none of these actions builds on the other. White means the events to have a cascading effect upon Peggy. She has no personality, though, and no moral center. She's tugged in the directions the other characters deign, and drug through the mud, but none of it sticks to create anything remotely resonant.

That's because White is more concerned with giving his film that hip, indie kitsch factor than giving it life with any robustness. Within the first minute we see all of White's influences: a Mark Mothersbaugh-ish score, the sickly green hues of much old photography and all contemporary indie flicks, several Napoleon Dynamite-ish top-down shots of meat and the flat, geometric face-framing of Wes Anderson. Never, though, are we given any inkling of what inspires Peggy to be who she is or become what she becomes.

Of all the characters, only Newt displays any humanity at all, and it's short-lived. When an aggressive, abused German shepherd mauls and kills one of his dogs, he orders the dog destroyed. "There's nothing you can do with a dog like that but put him down," Sarsgaard says. His tear-filled doe eyes, though, betray a flicker of vengeance.

A momentarily bright spot in an almost uniformly bleak procession. (Rated PG-13)