Year of the Dog is the story of Peggy (Molly Shannon), a socially awkward secretary at a large company doing an unnamed business in Southern California. White gives us a canny signal into Peggy's personality in the picture's opening when she arrives at work and takes the zigzag wheel-chair ramp rather than walking directly up the steps. She doesn't have a physical infirmity, but as we will discover, she is handicapped. Peggy's humorless boss Robin (Josh Pais) is obsessed with his six-figure compensation and is almost indecently insensitive about Peggy's much lower pay. He reduces her Christmas bonus, explaining with a shrug that though she deserves more, he always figures her bonus as a percentage of his. Not the golden rule but the pyrite rule: if those above you treat you badly, treat badly those under you.
Peggy has a good friend in fellow secretary Layla (Regina King), who is plotting to get her not always faithful beau to propose. And she's close to her brother Pier (Thomas McCarthy) and sister-in-law Bret (Laura Dern), for whose children she is a doting aunt. But even with Layla and Pier and Bret, Peggy is awkward and uncertain. She's always thoughtful, earnestly hoping to be liked, but it's clear no interaction with fellow humans comes naturally to Peggy. The only time she is truly comfortable is when she's with her beloved beagle Pencil. They play together, eat together, cuddle in front of the TV together and sleep together. And then Pencil dies.
How can Peggy carry on? White's script puts her through a gauntlet of opportunities, all unsuccessful. Her next-door neighbor Al (John C. Reilly) asks her out, but she thinks Pencil died from eating something in Al's yard. She meets a doughy but earnest SPCA worker, Newt (Peter Saarsgaard), and even becomes a vegan, as he is, in hopes of making herself romantically attractive to him, but until only embarrassment can result, she manages to miss all the clues that he's gay.
White plays a lot of this material for nervous, tentative laughs: Robin's appalling but utterly unabashed selfishness, the hyper, snappish German Shepherd, Valentine, that Newt convinces Peggy to take even though Valentine is the anti-Pencil of dogs, Peggy's hopeful blindness to all Newt's efforts to signal her that romance is not in the offing. But when Newt rejects Peggy, the picture takes a hard dark turn. Peggy takes in 15 utterly untrained stray dogs and turns her house into a reeking kennel. When asked to babysit overnight for Pier and Bret's children, she destroys Bret's furs and takes the children on a nigh traumatic trip to a rescued farm-animal shelter.
We begin the picture appropriately sympathetic to Peggy. She's lonely and eager to please. In the hands of another filmmaker, we'd watch as the ugly duckling blossoms into a swan. But Mike White's worldview is a lot more pessimistic than that held by conventional Hollywood. He thinks the lonely, socially clumsy and isolated aren't very likely to become beautiful, well adjusted and happy. More probably, they will develop habits that the rest of us find extreme or even extremely distasteful. White's character in Chuck and Buck, akin to Peggy in many ways, becomes a stalker and ultimately a sexual blackmailer. Peggy doesn't go that far, and the end of the film identifies a more successful role for herself as an animal rights activist. But somewhere along the way, White insists that we regard Peggy with the same kind of shudder that the characters in the film do.
Nonetheless, Year of the Dog has an insistent humanity that I admire. In the final analysis, no one here emerges as a villain. Robin shows more generosity than we thought him capable of. Al lets bygones be bygones. Newt and Layla try to be friends. Pier and Bret unfocus from their own self-centered obsessions long enough to provide familial support and if not to forgive then at least to tolerate. In short, in a Mike White world, everyone has a back story, and few people are monsters. Few are entirely likable, however, and here as elsewhere that makes his picture in many ways uncomfortable to watch.