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Sweet ‘Year of the Dog’ is a film to curl up with

Molly Shannon displays surprising range as a woman whose dog dies.
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Year of the Dog” would appear to have all the trappings of a typical romantic comedy, the kind in which our underdog heroine bursts from her shell and finds love, friendship and (most importantly) herself in the process.

While all that does indeed happen, it does so through the uniquely skewed prism of Mike White, who previously wrote the darkly intriguing “Chuck & Buck” and the slyly funny “The Good Girl” and directs here for the first time.

What could have been predictable is instead refreshing. And what could have been a feel-good performance from Molly Shannon is instead delicate, poignant, and an unexpected display of dramatic mastery from an actress who’s made her name with comedy.

The “Saturday Night Live” alum stars as Peggy Spade, a mouse of a secretary whose life changes completely after the death of her beloved beagle, Pencil. White really gets the culture of dog people, and doesn’t merely cut away to the canines looking cute for a cheap laugh, another rom-com staple. She is not his owner and he is not her pet — they’re friends and loyal companions, and White depicts the moment she finds him collapsed on the ground with simple, palpable anguish.

(Bring tissue.)

It’s not that Peggy is a shy person. On the contrary, she’s exceedingly pleasant and accommodating to everyone around her — probably too much so — including a self-absorbed co-worker (Regina King) who’s angling for an engagement ring from her player boyfriend, and her pushover brother (Thomas McCarthy) and know-it-all sister-in-law (Laura Dern, subtly stinging), who only talk about their kids.

But Peggy hasn’t been living her life for herself, for her own happiness. And it’s only when her warm, furry security blanket is taken from her does she try to begin doing that. Shannon is funny and sad and ultimately heartbreaking in the role; who knew she had this in her? It’s very different from the broad comedy of her Mary Katherine Gallagher character, and a joy to watch.

White has crafted a complex character study, and in Peggy, Shannon has created someone who’s not really a geek but also isn’t all that comfortable in her own skin either. Just in the small gestures — the facial expressions or the way she holds her head — she feels so lonely and real, she makes you want to reach out and give her a hug.

She meets two different men, one who’s obviously a bad fit for her and one who seems right, a fundamental tenet of the genre that dates to “The Philadelphia Story” and probably long before that, which White also approaches with fresh eyes.

Next-door neighbor Al (a believably boorish John C. Reilly, who also co-starred as Jennifer Aniston’s husband in “The Good Girl”) initially seems sympathetic to Peggy’s loss but in no time reveals himself to be a pretty obnoxious dude. Then there’s Newt (Peter Sarsgaard, great in everything), a sensitive, fanny-pack-wearing animal rescue volunteer who turns Peggy on to veganism and opens her eyes to the cruelty and abuse so many creatures endure.

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But that relationship isn’t as rosy as Peggy might hope either. Nevertheless, her post-Pencil interactions with all these people set her on a path that she — and we — might never have expected.

The main problem with “Year of the Dog” is its pacing. White shows a soft touch with his own material, which works in the more intimate, quiet moments but, applied throughout, tends to drain the film of any sense of momentum or drive. Peggy’s journey, while moving and inspiring, feels like a pastiche of moments that eventually lead her somewhere different from where she started.

It’s not a huge complaint about a first-time filmmaker, it’s just what keeps a good film from being great. It also makes you curious to see what White has to offer next.