There's no feeling like wanting to like a film and not being able to. Year of the Dog, the directing debut of writer Mike White, whose work I have admired, is a failed but noble effort to address seriously the plight of a lonely woman, Peggy (Molly Shannon), who responds to the death of her dog by venturing into the ethical and activist universe of people who rescue dogs and boycott animal-abusing corporations.
Along the way, she adopts the discipline of veganism, embezzles money from work in order to support animal charities, and finally turns her house into a dog kennel. And all of this is within the confines of a multiplex comedy that stars a second-tier Saturday Night Live alumna.
The film doesn't work, yet as I sat in the theater watching the closing credits crawl and thinking about the movie I'd just seen, a pair of middle-aged, suburban-looking women stepped over my feet on their way to the aisle.
"You don't have to write about this, do you?" one asked.
I told her I planned to.
"Oh, I feel sorry for you," she said, laughing and continuing on her way.
The remark stung, as I was entirely sympathetic to the movie and struggling to understand its failure, but there you have it: As ambitious as Year of the Dog is, it falls down in its first task of entertaining audiences who have little interest in messages with their tubs of popcorn. ("If you want to send a message, call Western Union," Sam Goldwyn once said.) Instead, Year of the Dog suffers from a lack of a coherent story line, a less-than-charming protagonist, coldly drawn supporting characters and stilted dialogue that gets delivered as if the actors were two-dimensional cartoon panels, with their words in bubbles above their heads.
It's a painful object lesson in the perils of a writer stepping up to the director's chair. As a writer, Mike White has staked out a unique territory: His scripts take place in a world that most people live in but movies don't typically acknowledge, that is, a suburban hell of anonymous office buildings, dreary Wal-Marts and vacuous shopping malls. Although he's made the big bucks by scripting Nacho Libre and School of Rock, White's reputation as a suburban moralist in gag writer's clothing stems from his writing stints with Freaks and Geeks, the indie hit Chuck and Buck and, above all, The Good Girl, in which the star wattage of Jennifer Aniston was nearly extinguished by the gloom of the film's low-rent retail universe.
Although he doesn't appear in Year of the Dog, White often turns up as an actor in his films. His own screen appearances have been effective, if limited (Ned Schneebly in School of Rock, Buck in Chuck and Buck). But as a director, he seems to have little feel for acting, and orchestrating the flow of scenes. John C. Reilly, always so good, here flounders as a next-door neighbor who becomes rather implausibly attracted to Peggy, makes a clumsy advance and otherwise talks enthusiastically about hunting, oblivious to Peggy's sensibilities. As Newt, an asexual dog rescuer and vegan, the similarly sturdy Peter Sarsgaard seems unsure whether to play his character as simp, a fool or an autistic. In one scene that shows off White's genuine talent for yucky intimacy, however, Sarsgaard gets the film's most horrified laugh when his face freezes at the moment before he kisses Peggy.
Year of the Dog suffers from cinematic clumsiness as conversations between actors are shot as a series of back-and-forth close-ups, with no effort to find a natural chemistry between the performers. Furthermore, the script sometimes resembles an SNL sketch in which characters have single, one-joke traits that are flogged to death. Peggy's sister-in-law (Laura Dern) is a materialistic suburbanite, forever preoccupied with shielding her children from the hazards of living and dying. Exchanges between Peggy and her designated office confidant Layla (an energetic Regina King) exist only to reinforce simplistic traits: Layla is marriage-crazy—the single value in her life is getting the rock on her finger, and she encourages Peggy to do the same. Peggy's scenes with Robin (Josh Pais), her obsessively careerist boss, also play variations on a single note.
It's true that monomaniacal characters are a staple of comedy, but since this film isn't very funny, we're stuck with types, not people. The characters in Year of the Dog are so obsessively devoted to their causes (money, marriage, animal happiness) that they neglect their own humanity. That's a fair enough premise for a film, except that White's script has neglected their humanity as well. —David Fellerath
Year of the Dog opens Friday in select theaters.
I could go on about how Avenue Montaigne is a charming, sunny delight, evocative of such recent French cinema offerings as Look at Me or Jacques Rivette's Va savoir. I could expound on how writer-director Danièle Thompson has accessed the joie de vivre in romantic comedies that Hollywood seems to have forgotten. I could ... but I would not be able to summon the sincerity to mask my ambivalence over what is ultimately little more than sentimental treacle.
Set amidst the titular Parisian thoroughfare, a plucky, provincial waif-with-a-dream named Jessica (Cécile De France) lands a job waitressing at a chic café across the street from an art gallery, a concert hall and a theater. There she encounters an assortment of arty archetypes beset by their own worldly woes. Catherine (Valérie Lemercier) is a bipolar soap star who longs for glory on the big screen and wants to impress an American movie director played by Sydney Pollack (clearly seizing an opportunity for a free Paris getaway, and little more). Jean-François (Albert Dupontel) is a renowned concert pianist who has grown weary of his livelihood but is a slave to his own fame—to the consternation of his manager/wife (Laura Morante). Jacques Grumberg (Claude Brasseur) is preparing to auction his extensive art collection in order to start a new life with his young girlfriend (Annelise Hesme), with whom Jacques' son, Frédéric (Christopher Thompson, Daniele's son), once had an affair.
There is an Altmanesque air to the breezy, overlapping storylines that comprise this serendipitous synthesis where bons vivants and the bourgeois freely interact. Art imitates life, and here that includes the lesson that even accomplished artists are beset by the same travails as the life they reveal.
De France—last seen by many American audiences as the chainsaw-wielding "heroine" in High Tension—plays Jessica as a wide-eyed gamine who is the effervescent refrain in this roundelay, while Lemercier supplies the much-needed comedic ingredient to this sugary confection. Thompson—last seen by American audiences conjuring the insipid Jet Lag—paints a radiant portrait of Gay Paree that could well serve as a vicarious vacation for those unable to spring for airfare and a hotel room.
C'est dommage, then, that the film is as showy and shallow as the haute couture peddled along the real Avenue Montaigne, France's la grand dame of fashion. This is unabashedly style over substance, yet even the style is occasionally assailable—including some dubious editing choices throughout—whereas the substance is as flaccid as a fallen soufflé. Avenue Montaigne is cozy like a chaise longue, and just as prone to induce somnolence. —Neil Morris
Avenue Montaigne opens Friday in select theaters.