Mike White’s comedy The Year of the Dog, which premiered in Sundance this week in the Premieres section, shares a premise with the similarly titled Joan Didion memoir, The Year of Magical Thinking. That is, when one is grieving, one experiences a kind of insanity, the “magical thinking” of Didion’s title. One’s relationship to the rest of society as well as one’s self is occluded by the memory of the deceased.
Of course, Didion’s departed was her husband, the novelist John Gregory Dunne. It’s typical of White’s unsettling wit that the protagonist of his film – a retiring and unmarried 40s-ish female office assistant – is grieving not a person but the sudden death of her dog, Pencil. But dog lovers – as well as all those attuned to White’s gently odd sensibility – will understand that her sorrow is real and that it is capable of motivating all that comes after.
It’s not a diss to say that midway through The Year of the Dog I had no idea where the film was going. Like Chuck and Buck, which White wrote, The Year of the Dog takes offbeat narrative asides and refuses to be bound by the rules that govern Hollywood-produced romantic comedies. (It’s also a dog movie with surprisingly few “Awwwww!” moments.) But this mostly pleasurable sense of being lost is also due to White’s attitude towards his characters, a point-of-view that drifts between bemusement, detachment and affection. Casting Molly Shannon as his protagonist, White gives us a recognizable actress who, due to her association with the sketch comedy of Saturday Night Live, fails to bring to the picture the instant, empathy-inducing star persona of a Drew Barrymore or Jennifer Aniston. This is a good thing. In White’s world everyone, from the straights to the weirdoes, is just a bit strange.
Before seeing the film I heard some people have a problem with the ending. After seeing it, I couldn’t figure out why. Or, rather, I didn’t get whether they thought it was too happy or too sad. Undeservedly optimistic or condescendingly cynical. I just went with it.