Animal insanity

“Year of the Dog”Paramount VantageWritten and directed by Mike WhiteStarring: Molly Shannon, Peter Sarsgaard, John C. Reilly, Regina King, Laura Dern, Thomas McCarthy and Josh PaisRated PG-13/97 minutesOpened April 13, 2007One-and-a-half out of four stars

Peggy is a lunatic. There’s no getting around that. Mike White thinks this is funny. He seems to pass off her lunacy as quirkiness or eccentricity. Does he think it’s cute? I don’t know. Whatever he thinks, the character is a colossal misfire — one of the worst-written characters I’ve ever seen.

Peggy (played by Molly Shannon) is supposed to be endearing, but instead just comes across as creepy. White wants us to feel genuine affection for a character whose behavior is completely intolerable — even in a comedy. And yet because “Year of the Dog” rests entirely on her shoulders, it completely collapses despite its promising start.

Peggy is one of those people who connects better with animals than she does with people. She has one close friend, Layla (Regina King), but the most important relationship in her life is with her dog, Pencil. Her love life is virtually nonexistent, her brother and sister-in-law (Thomas McCarthy and Laura Dern) don’t understand her and she doesn’t connect with her coworkers.

But when Pencil turns up dead one morning, Peggy is pushed to break out of her shell just a little — which, for her, means going out on one date (with a hilariously oblivious knife enthusiast played by John C. Reilly) and beginning a search for new canine companionship.

But what White does with Peggy’s character once things are set in motion is unforgivable — and doesn’t make sense.

On a whim, Peggy becomes an animal-rights activist for the sole purpose of impressing a guy she meets, Newt (the always good Peter Sarsgaard).

Yet we’re supposed to believe that she’s suddenly so attached to this cause that she turns into a raving psychopath, even when Newt is out of the picture?

That’s what she does. Without going into detail, Peggy turns into a criminally insane basket case who will stop at nothing to fulfill her selfish, self-absorbed, irrational aims. By the end of the movie, she isn’t just unsympathetic-she becomes an utterly contemptible character.

Even worse, after going well off the deep end, after taking a sledgehammer to the lives of everyone around her — well past any sympathy we have left for the character — White asks us to love her and accept her just as she is.

Did he know the character was going to turn out like this when he started writing her? And if so, why the hell didn’t he stop himself?

If “Year of the Dog” were just some ridiculous dark comedy, that might be one thing. But White wants us to feel for the character like we would any other protagonist in any other romantic comedy. He might not agree with Peggy’s actions, but he certainly tries to present her in a sympathetic light that she simply doesn’t earn.

Why do we want her to wind up with the guy? Why do we want to forgive her? How has she earned anything but sheer disdain?

It’s one thing to ask an audience to forgive a character. We can do that. But not like this. Not when said character doesn’t earn a shred of sympathy.

The fact that she can’t relate to other people is an understandable one. Many can relate. But there’s no excuse for a character like this-this is a character who doesn’t seem to possess a whiff of intelligence, logic, common sense or human empathy.

How did this come from Mike White?

White is an interesting writer, even if his body of work has been erratic. But I’ve never seen him this out of step. Characters he created in “Chuck & Buck,” “The Good Girl,” “School of Rock” and the great short-lived TV series “Freaks and Geeks” were often gleefully offbeat and eccentric, but were almost always believable and at least understandable.

Peggy is not.

She is a mishmash of conflicting traits and intentions. She is neither a funny character nor a credible protagonist. The other characters in “Year of the Dog,” for all their flaws, are at least reasonable people. But Peggy, as much as we might want to like her, deserves everything she gets.

“Hold it together, hold it together?they won’t see you if you don’t move?” Molly Shannon exhibits varying degrees of un-hilarious insanity in “Year of the Dog.”