What a relief that "Year of the Dog" is not a Molly Shannon vehicle. This is a surprise since she stars in it, and maybe a disappointment to those expecting her usual hammy "SNL" persona. But Shannon is as stripped of pratfalls as she is of makeup in "Year of the Dog," an insightful and funny portrait of a woman whose life slowly comes unraveled after she loses a pet. If anything, the movie is more a vehicle for writer-director Mike White, who has had a hand in comic dramas of various strengths, including "Orange County," "The Good Girl" and "School of Rock." White is a frequent collaborator with comedian Jack Black, but "Year of the Dog" shows he has much better things on his mind than goofy shtick. White also produced and wrote for the cult television show "Freaks and Geeks," and "Dog" is just as strong as that comedy of realism, with a love of average people and a feel for the humor in the everyday minutiae of their lives.
Living in a movie somewhere between "Election" and "Happiness," Shannon plays Peggy, a frumpy administrative assistant working at a sterile suburban corporate campus. "Dog" is less interested in what her company does than in the people who munch doughnuts there. Peggy's boss (Josh Pais) complains to her about his own salary, her cubicle neighbor Layla (Regina King) wonders when her boyfriend will propose, and Peggy routinely brings in desserts for her co-workers. In her free time, Peggy is devoted to her small pet beagle, Pencil. White spares no detail of the casual pet obsessive. Peggy has little social life; it is limited to occasional visits with the family of her wealthy sister (Laura Dern), who is more unhealthily overprotective of her kids than Peggy is of Pencil. Otherwise Peggy is a wallflower with one canine friend. When Pencil is accidentally killed, she can find little understanding in her friends and relatives.
White shows a lot of skill in allowing life to unfold naturally, even as it suits his narrative. Peggy declines the advice of Layla to "get laid" to overcome her grief, but at the same time accepts a pseudo-date at an Italian restaurant with her neighbor Al (John C. Reilly). The two are not meant to be. Al is a hunter, with a collection of knives and mounted game trophies on his walls. Peggy looks at them as if she can't decide what to think as if she's never had to decide what to think but a budding friendship with Newt (Peter Sarsgaard) helps make up her mind.
Newt is a fellow dog lover who finds homes for animals about to be euthanized by the city. His veganism causes Peggy to pause over her chicken sandwich, and soon she's looking up an illustrated paperback on veganism at the local bookstore. As the two become friends, "Dog" shows how one person's carefully considered lifestyle can become another's mania. Newt is surprisingly level-headed for a New Agey animal nut. He's always taking guff from animal groups, he says, for working with the city, which doesn't hesitate to put down a hound. But, he reasons, better to work with them than save none. In her grief and loneliness, however, Peggy doesn't pick up on Newt's sense of proportion. Before long, she's perusing Internet sites calling for animal rescue from the evil clutches of factory farms and medical labs, then forging her boss's name on petitions and checks to animal organizations.
A similar dangerous awakening shaped "The Good Girl," in which Jennifer Aniston's character revolts against the ordinary life she leads working at a discount retail store. "Year of the Dog" is like a revision, a much better essay on suburbia with broad jokes carefully excised. It avoids big ideas as much as laughs in favor of sublime little character sketches. Sarsgaard's Newt says nothing funny or even interesting, but he's utterly believable as an asexual man devoted to his three dogs, and is therefore funny and interesting. So is Peggy's sister (Dern), who believes that the best way to protect a child, or anyone, including herself, is to avoid discussing anything unpleasant. But "Year of the Dog" has a nose for the unpleasant. It is wonderfully entertaining while showing that every person, whether devoted to the mainstream or whistling his own tune, looks like a weirdo to somebody. (PG-13) 97 min. ***** S