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Knight at the Movies: The Year of the Dog-Hot Fuzz
by Richard Knight, Jr.
2007-04-18

This article shared 3728 times since Wed Apr 18, 2007
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Year of the Dog. Hot Fuzz. Image by Matt Nettheim

_____________

A film called Year of the Dog is just asking for the critical raspberries the title seems to stand up and beg for: 'Year of the Dog is the Dog of the Year,' 'This movie is such a dog it's practically barking,' 'Year of the Dog gave me fleas,' etc. But though the analogies are easy to make ( and the film's last quarter deserves these ) , writer-director Mike White's offbeat little movie is better than the easy kiss-off that its name implies.

During the movie, Molly Shannon ( Peggy ) goes from a lonely dog owner eager for human connection to a loony loner thinly connected to others by a joint obsession for animal rights. This process is told in a quick series of sharply observed scenes that move the picture from a subtle comedy into darker emotional territory that's troubling, to say the least, and not particularly involving. Peggy the lonely dog owner you sympathize with; Peggy the nut job you do not. By that point White has seemed to abandon his lovely, multifaceted character study in search of something that comes off as crass and desperate.

As the movie begins Shannon, who has always walked that uncomfortable line brilliantly between comedy and pathos with her characters ( not unlike Catherine O'Hara ) , is in top form. Her Peggy is one of those non-descript single women with a good job that's allowed her to provide a decent life for herself but not much else. Everyone dumps his or her problems on Peggy, the eager listener—her one friend at work, Layla ( Regina King ) ; her brother Pier ( Thomas McCarthy ) ; her fearful, annoying sister-in-law Bret ( played to perfection by Laura Dern ) ; and her jerk of a boss ( Josh Pais ) —but no one really seems to connect with Peggy or love her unconditionally. That's where Pencil, Peggy's adorable little beagle who is the center of her world, comes in. In lieu of human contact, Peggy fusses over Pencil the way mothers fuss over a favorite child. When a tragedy befalls Pencil, Peggy is bereft. Everyone mutters words of sympathy but no one really understands the massive grief that Peggy is suffering from.

This seldom-explored subject—the emotional void that pets can fulfill in us—is beautifully captured by writer-director White. A funny episode in which Peggy accepts a dinner date from gruff next-door neighbor Al ( John C. Reilly, doing his usual fine job ) and is horrified to find that he's an avid hunter, follows. But the movie then introduces the element that, while charming at first, will prove to be its downfall. Peggy becomes infatuated with Newt, a bisexual vegan animal rights activist ( Peter Sarsgaard ) she meets at a dog shelter. The odd relationship between the two is very well drawn and is highly reminiscent of a lot of unrequited ones between gay men and straight lonely women. But, slowly, Peggy becomes a strident activist. Though it's easy to see how the development happens, it's also a drag to watch the charming movie go off its leash—along with its leading character.

The ads for the film feature a scene in which Peggy is shown driving her car bulging with yapping dogs, which is a funny sight gag—and a misleading one, because by the time the film reaches this point, Peggy is so far gone that any feeling you have for her has vanished. If Year of the Dog had continued to explore Peggy in a realistic manner and the honest emotional repercussions of the loss of a beloved pet, I might have stayed with it as well. Instead, White turns on his leading character in attempting to move the film in another direction—and his audience in the bargain. So, sorry to say, Year of the Dog ends up biting the hand that feeds it.

I didn't love Shaun of the Dead, the zombie parody comedy from the British team of Edgar Wright, Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, as much as I'd anticipated. That has to do with my squeamishness—I'm not a gore-monger—but I unequivocally loved the clever writing, direction and performances. Now Wright and Pegg ( a team that co-writes the scripts, directs and co-stars ) are two for two. They parody all those buddy cop action pictures with Hot Fuzz and, though there's still plenty of gore, the movie's not awash in it—and I have no reservations about strongly recommending this brash little picture.

What both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz share, aside from their creators and stars, is tightly-composed scenes, the wisely-chosen retro-flavored songs and the dead-on, droll approaches that both Pegg and Frost bring to their roles. In Hot Fuzz, Pegg plays Sgt. Nicholas Angel, a London-based cop so good at what he does he makes everyone pale in comparison ( which is hilariously shown in a montage to Adam Ant's Goody Two Shoes ) . His jealous superiors send Angel to a quaint village under the charge of the gentle Inspector Frank Butterman ( Jim Broadbent ) , whose idiot son, Danny ( Frost ) , becomes Angel's partner.

Naturally, the all-business Angel has a hard time with the lax approach that the tiny village has toward law enforcement and the lack of big-time crime he's used to, but soon it becomes clear that all is not what it seems in the bucolic little town and the picture kicks into high Cop Buddy mode. Wright and Pegg have larded the movie with a cast of seasoned British vets who nail every line and crazy character motivation without breaking a sweat, including Timothy Dalton and Billie Whitelaw.

Hot Fuzz is a loud, boisterous laugh riot that's a pleasure from beginning to end. At the climax it also has one of those unexpected, laugh-out-loud sight gags that literally had me crying tears of laughter—and it's gory and hilarious at the same time. I guess I'm not so squeamish after all.

You can find my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Feedback can be left at the latter Web site.


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