WEB EXTRA: Beyond Mary Katherine Gallagher: Mike White talks about Molly Shannon and “Year of the Dog”

In Chinese astrology, those born in the Year of the Dog possess certain traits often affiliated with man’s best friend: loyal, dependable and well meaning, to name a few.

Such is Peggy (Molly Shannon), an unassuming secretary approaching early middle age and the main character of “Year of the Dog,” written and directed by Mike White (screenwriter of “School of Rock” and “Orange County,” among others). A dog lover herself, Peggy is relied upon by friends, family, and colleagues alike for her kind smile and open ears.

At the center of Peggy’s world is Pencil, an adorable beagle puppy. He’s like her best friend and child wrapped up into a cute fur exterior. And Peggy, you’ll be quick to learn, tends to prefer the company of canines; for reasons unknown, she doesn’t connect too well with other humans. So it’s no surprise that when Pencil dies, she starts to lose it.

Mike White proves himself to be pretty good at what he does once again – what starts as a light comedic venture that thrives on slightly overbearing caricatures and awkward situations eases you into territory where things start to go wrong. In a poorer movie these things would have been unintentionally funny, but here it works.

The character traits assigned to the Year of the Dog aren’t purely positive: dog people might also be selfish, eccentric, stubborn, and emotionally distant. Yup, that’s also Peggy.

Her behavior is benign to begin with. It’s proactive, even: she starts picking up the pieces by adopting a stray and volunteering at a shelter during her free time. She acquaints herself with some animal rights activists. She becomes a vegan. She starts sending money to shelters and humane groups.by forging her boss’s signature on his checks. See where this is going? “Year of the Dog” is a film about obsession, and the dangers borne therewith.

But it deftly walks the fine line between comedy and drama. In an interview with the Hatchet, White pointed out how, “it’s more about somebody realizing that what made them happy is something that’s unconventional, and being able to claim it. in the end she’s just saying, ‘This is my thing, accept me for what makes me happy.'”

Now, a lot of people might normally avoid a movie with Molly Shannon in the lead role. I mean, the last movie she carried was “Superstar.” But Shannon has come a long way from Mary Catherine Gallagher – this is a career redefining role. Her performance is endearing, if a little creepy, and demonstrates grace, a comic subtlety that has been alien to her career until now.

In an interview with the Hatchet, White talked about working with Shannon on a script written specifically with her in mind: “She’s so cool, and I was so impressed by how versatile she was.she could also do something that was a little different, because people just think of her as the chick who falls over bleacher chairs and stuff.”

With Shannon, the “Year of the Dog” is able to tiptoe into shadowy territory without straying into the macabre. As White said, “I knew it was going to get a little dark, I knew that was going to be where the story was going, because it was about somebody who’s kind of like spiraling out. But I felt by putting Molly in it, it would keep it in a more. comic place.”

Along with Shannon, “Year of the Dog” features some other formidable character actors: John C. Reilly (“Chicago”) plays Al, a boorish hunter who lives next door, and Peter Sarsgaard (“Garden State”) is Newt, an animal loving bachelor with whom Peggy connects on a different level. But he’s the wrong type of bachelor, if you catch my drift.

It’s a very enjoyable film, lovingly shot with imagery as colorful as its characters. It could have very easily been a referendum on PETA people, but thankfully, it is not. It eschews politics in favor of storytelling the old-fashioned way, following a character facing problems and learning to define herself. It’s honest, modest, and intelligent – after all, its premiere at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival in January happened to be during a Year of the Dog.

“Year of the Dog” opens Friday, April 20th at the Landmark E Street Cinema.

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