Year of the Dog

As a writer, Mike White has created ironic, above-it-all comedies like “Chuck & Buck,” “School of Rock,” and “Nacho Libre” (which he co-wrote), all films whose protagonists are unusual and isolated in some way — losers, even, except that we like them. In “Year of the Dog,” he’s directing for the first time, and he brings that sense of detachment with him. The result is a film that can make you laugh without making you feel anything … except maybe a little weariness for self-consciously quirky movies about unusual loners.

The star is “SNL” alumna Molly Shannon, showing a genuinely impressive dramatic range as Peggy, a quiet single woman who loves her little beagle, Pencil. When Pencil dies unexpectedly, Peggy is thrown into an emotional tailspin (the sunny, playful kind of tailspin, not the sad kind) and starts looking for ways to fill the void.

Her relationships with humans are not particularly satisfying. Layla (Regina King), her best friend at her office job, won’t quit talking about her boyfriend, whose affections she is insecure about. When he finally proposes marriage, she ecstatically tells Peggy, “I guess all my whining paid off!”

Peggy’s family includes a brother, Pier (Thomas McCarthy), his uptight wife Bret (Laura Dern), and their young, overprotected daughter. Bret is the kind of mom who won’t let you bring toys with square corners into the house, and who spells out words like D-E-A-T-H around the little one. She and Pier offer only basic, patronizing sympathy over Pencil’s death.

Slightly more promising is Al (John C. Reilly), the gun-fanatic who lives next door to Peggy. He takes Peggy to dinner and expresses great sympathy for her loss, as he once lost a pet, too. “She was my right-hand bitch,” he says. “I’m sorry — I mean in the dog way of being a bitch.”

But Al isn’t all Peggy hoped he might be, and neither is Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), the probably-gay-but-maybe-just-asexual man who works at the animal shelter. No, what Peggy really needs in her life is a dog. Or, maybe, 15 dogs, which is what she winds up with while looking for a replacement Pencil and discovering a batch of pooches who are about to be euthanized.

Peggy becomes a vegan. She becomes an activist, secretly taking her young niece to a slaughterhouse in the hopes of impressing and/or horrifying her with the urgency of the cause. She tricks her boss (Josh Pais) into donating money to PETA-like organizations. In short, Peggy becomes a Crazy Dog Lady.

That’s the impression everyone around her has. It fits all the stereotypes: single, just past 40, and totally devoted to animals. Of course she’s crazy, right? White’s subversive, almost sweet message is that hey, if that’s what makes you happy, go for it. Who’s to say what’s “normal”? Let your freak flag fly, Peggy, with your many, many dogs!

White has a good thing going here, but he harms it with too much of his forced whimsy and a nagging feeling that he’s mocking these characters more than he’s admiring them. His characteristic visual style is to have the actors face the camera when they talk — even when they’re having conversations with other people. Cut to Regina King looking right at us as she talks to Molly Shannon; cut to Shannon facing us head-on for her reaction; cut back to King, still staring us down as she responds. These are usually medium-wide shots, too: We’re kept both literally and emotionally at arm’s length from everyone.

Shannon makes it worth seeing anyway, though, with her deft comic timing (far more subdued than on “SNL”) and her knack for making us like pathetic characters. Most of the supporting characters steal a scene or two as well — the supposedly normal people turn out to be just as nutty as the crazy dog lady! Get it?!!? — and I think if someone had stolen the screenplay away from White, we might have gotten something more humane.

B- (1 hr., 36 min.; PG-13, a little mild profanity and some innuendo; should have been PG.)