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A film career is not an easy thing to come by for female alumni of Saturday Night Live. While their male peers (even Rob Schneider!) manage to land movie after movie, the women have better luck in sitcoms, so you could hardly blame Molly Shannon for starring in the 2004 Fox series Cracking Up. The show was canceled after a few episodes, but a fortuitous partnership was made between Shannon and openly gay creator Mike White, and now she is starring in White's appealing directorial debut, Year of the Dog.
Shannon plays office assistant Peggy, the sort of sweet-tempered woman who is frequently dumped on by the people in her life. Boss Robin (Josh Pais) pulls her into his office to whine about his meager bonus, complaining that "it may sound like a lot of money to you, but you don't have the degrees I do." Best friend Layla (Regina King) is a little nicer, but so marriage-obsessed that she looks at the unattached Peggy with barely concealed horror. Only Peggy's adorable beagle, Pencil, can provide her with the sort of unconditional love she deserves, so when the dog meets an untimely end, Peggy's life is turned upside down. The result is a lively, episodic adventure that recalls Jonathan Demme's Something Wild. White even tends to shoot his characters' conversations head-on in the frame--one of Demme's auteur trademarks.
I found White's screenplay for the Jennifer Aniston film The Good Girl to be overrated and even condescending, so imagine my surprise to find actual streaks of humanity in his work here - especially in Shannon's marvelous performance. The film premiered this year during a Sundance Film Festival that served as a showcase of sorts for subtle performance from comediennes such as Parker Posey and Catherine Keener, but I was unprepared for the way Shannon modulates her comic instincts to produce a real, recognizable woman who is also a necessary anchor to some fairly outrageous supporting characters. Not many actresses could hold their own against Peter Sarsgaard as a sexually ambiguous vegan or Laura Dern as a deliriously overprotective yuppie mom--the fact that Shannon excels at it gives a lot more hope, I think, to current SNL talents like Amy Poehler. Women like Shannon and Poehler may not get a Deuce Bigalow franchise of their very own, but if they end up in films like this one, we're all better off.