Peggy isn't the sort of character you see in the centre of movies. She's the best friend, the ear, the shoulder, the confidante. Peggy lives an unexciting life working in a faceless corporate office nestled in a suburban sprawl. Her only comfort is her beagle Pencil, and his death sets her on a path to animal rights activism and eventual emotional breakdown.
Written and directed by Mike White (Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl and School of Rock), Year of the Dog is a disturbing character drama served up in a lightly ironic sensibility. Like Julianne Moore's alienated environmentally sensitive character in Safe, Molly Shannon's Peggy is utterly disconnected. The humane treatment of animals becomes her obsession and she's never less than convincing in her downward spiral. Her family, friends and romantic prospects—great supporting work from Peter Sarsgaard, John C. Reilly, Laura Dern and Regina King, among others—are largely into shallow pursuits, as Peggy struggles to make a difference. In one grimly cute scene, she empties the pound of all the death-row pooches she can take home.
Though far less misanthropic than, say, Todd Solondz, White is still looking to skewer his audience. He overuses the character POV technique Jonathan Demme employs sparingly in his films: the actors are intercut and framed, talking into the camera during conversations, demanding viewer participation instead of inviting observation. There are laughs here, though most are of the nervous variety.
But appreciating Year of the Dog depends on whether you can relate to Peggy's plight. The picture stays pointedly ambivalent to her decision-making as it forces the audience to weigh in. Is she to be abhorred, pitied or admired? Maybe all three.
Philip K. Dick's preoccupations with memory and drugs and identity resonate through the decades. Film adaptations of his stories have been groundbreaking (Blade Runner), confounding (A Scanner Darkly) and an excuse for pointless action (Paycheck).
Next is firmly in the last category. Nicolas Cage, who produced, stars as Cris Johnson, AKA Frank Cadillac, a Las Vegas low-rent magician who can see two-minutes into his own future. Johnson has seen further than two minutes only once, when he had a vision of a beautiful teacher (Jessica Biel, beige). On his trail is an FBI agent (Julianne Moore, embarrassed) who thinks Johnson can help her find a group of terrorists bringing a nuke onto US soil.
Next raises a lot of questions but offers few answers. Are the terrorists French? Russian? Why do they want to detonate a bomb? Why does Johnson steal the car at the casino? Why is the CGI so unconvincing? Who made these shoddy interior sets? Why didn't anyone notice the enormous plot holes?
Of course, none of this matters if you enjoy watching Nicolas Cage do that thing he does. As magnetic and deadpan as ever, he makes much of the ridiculous stuff work. And there are moments of unexpected humour, as the whole two-minutes-of-precognition conceit offers some graceful action set-pieces, with Cage waltzing through the bad guys, disarming them effortlessly. It also does wonders for his ability to pick up.
Next is trashy, stupid and chock full of empty calories, but it's not boring. On a rainy, low-expectation Saturday afternoon, it could work on you the way fried eggs and sausages quench a hangover.
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