The Netflix queue is, by its nature, the opposite of the instant gratification of a rental store. You add movies you think you might want to see some day, then sit back and wait for them to arrive in an order decided by computer, according to factors and algorithms outside of your control. Enough time had passed since I added Year of the Dog that I could no longer recall why. Possibly I read a good review somewhere, or maybe I was curious about the sudden reappearance of Molly Shannon (part of “my” Saturday Night Live of the mid-90s — am I right that people feel the most affection for the SNL cast of their college years?). But I feel baited and switched; this is not a drama or romantic comedy but rather a movie with an agenda.
Writer/director Mike White’s Year of the Dog is a feature-length dramatization of Janeane Garofalo’s gag “You can love your pets, but you can’t love your pets.” Not unlike Lily in Eagle Vs. Shark, Peggy (Shannon) is a gentle sweetheart, but alienated and lonely. Her relationship with brother Pier (Thomas McCarthy from The Wire Season 5) and sister-in-law Bret (Laura Dern) is distant at best, and her closest friends are oblivious workmates.
When she loses the unconditional love of her dog Pencil, she becomes hungry for, as she puts it, a single word to define her. On a date with Al (John C. Reilly), Peggy demonstrates a dislike of hunting, the seed from which her new fervor for an animal activist lifestyle grows. Her one word, she decides, is to be “vegan.”
Her new life teases her at first with the possibility of love with Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), but he is too much like her, or what she might become: unable to love humans nearly as much as animals. From here, the tone shifts to the disturbing, as Peggy causes her life to fall apart. Her clumsy activism costs her her job and family, and she soon descends to theft and attempted murder.
And yet, the movie appears to present her ultimate state as a happy ending of sorts. She chooses to be friendless and unloved, but has found meaning and purpose. The most important part of the movie is missing: what happens between Peggy hitting rock bottom (where she becomes unable to function in society) and her total ascendance as a self-assured being? I don’t buy the sudden switcheroo that it’s all OK because she has discovered herself.
Would real-life animal activists find Peggy and Newt amusingly exaggerated versions of themselves, or insulting stereotypes? Even as I am the owner of two rescued casts, it strikes me that choosing the love of animals over that of people is a kind of mental illness that begs for correction, not celebration.