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An uncomfortable good time

Molly Shannon’s odd dog lover will keep you laughing ... and feeling uneasy

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Mike White makes movies about misfits.  In “Chuck & Buck,” “The Good Girl” and even the more mainstream “The School of Rock,” he centers the action on the kind of people we’d ordinarily snicker at or, more likely, just avoid — and then he documents their most agonizingly awkward moments. 

It’s no surprise that White wrote three episodes of the late, lamented cult TV show “Freaks and Geeks.”  It’s also no surprise that he’s found a muse in Molly Shannon.  She became famous for her “Saturday Night Live” Catholic schoolgirl character Mary Katherine Gallagher, who would put her hands in her armpits and then sniff them when she got nervous. 

Shannon is wholesomely pretty — until you notice that her eyes are a little too close together, the smile a little too gummy, and that her face betrays every twitch of discomfort.  At any given moment, she looks to be just this side of hysteria. 

In “Year of the Dog,” which White both wrote and directed, Shannon plays Peggy, an executive assistant with a tidy little life.  Although she prefers her pet dog, Pencil, to any human she knows, she’s cobbled together a conventional existence: listening to her best friend (Regina King) babble about her boyfriend, listening to her sister-in-law (Laura Dern) babble about the baby’s allergies, listening to her boss (Josh Pais) babble about how unappreciated he is.  At night, Peggy holes up at home, contentedly moisturizing her puppy’s paws.  She doesn’t expect much from people, so it all works out pretty well. 

Then Pencil suddenly dies — and leaves an unexpectedly large void.  Without anyplace to channel her prodigious energy, Peggy flounders from one passion to the next.  She tries dating (“Even retarded, crippled people get married!” the scene-hijacking Regina King assures her).  She adopts an abused dog.  She is elated to discover the wonders of veganism. “Yep,” she confides in the mildly alarmed Laura Dern.  “Vegan.  It’s nice to have a word that can describe you.  I’ve never had that before.” 

As Peggy’s behavior escalates from the “accepted” category to “extreme,” the sense of discomfort grows.  There are a lot of laugh-out-loud moments in this movie, and they are all of the nervous-tension-relieving variety.  Sometimes it feels like the setup to a horror flick; whether she’s gingerly flirting with hunting enthusiast John C. Reilly or pet clinic worker Peter Sarsgaard, you want to scream at the screen, “No! Run the other way!” 

Peggy is the kind of person in the office you’d probably try to avoid, even if she does bring in cupcakes.  But “Year of the Dog” succeeds in drawing you in, making you look at the world from her perspective.  By the end of the movie, you will recognize what kind of a person she is — and you’ll understand how she came to be that way. 

Shannon, who humbly began her film career with the SNL spinoffs “A Night at the Roxbury” and “Superstar” (and demonstrating how to put a condom on a banana in “Never Been Kissed”), proves she can rein in the slapstick.  What’s left is the tight pinch of pain on her expressive face.  Here, she doesn’t give you the easy out of simply laughing at her. 

Mike White has become adept at creating uncomfortable little movies that tackle big topics.  Ultimately, “Year of the Dog” is about nothing less than the search for identity, and for meaning.  After some over-the-top behavior, people ask Peggy, “What were you thinking?”  But Peggy’s problem isn’t thinking.  She is a woman with too much feeling — and no place to put it all. 

year of the dog ★★★

Starring: Molly Shannon, Laura Dern and Regina King

Director: Mike White

Rated: PG-13 for some suggestive references

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