Really, now, what's not to like about Molly Shannon? An entirely unique fixture on Saturday Night Live for years, she's had modest success in her leap to filmwork--mostly by putting her distinctness, on display in characters such as Catholic school misfit Mary Catherine Gallagher and the unapologetic fifty-year-old "sex symbol" Sally O'Malley, to death. She offsets her wild weirdness by being entirely endearing, so I cheered privately for her when she took on her first lead role in a film not related to her character work on SNL: The Year of the Dog, now on DVD. (Fair warning: I will spoil the plot again and again.)
One reviewer called Shannon's role in this movie "career-transforming," which is really appropriate, since her comedy here is deeply subtle and held in tension with a the very tender, fragile, nigh-on tragic story her character is experiencing. She plays a woman in her forties who's never married ("I never, you know I guess I never... that... that... that never happened. But I think some people just aren't as... you know... I don't know. It's like that, I guess.") or had children. She lives with her cute little dog Pencil, whom she dotes on like a child and confides in like a sibling. She is constantly framed in the movie alone, an observer to the lives of others, an oddity herself to be stared at. Her friends and family indulge her idiosyncratic relationship with the dog, but from her vantage point the quirkiness of suburban parenthood, the vanity of fledgling romance, the pointlessness of single-minded ambition, take on their own character of absurdity.
I was sucked in to the film from the outset. As a thirty-something nonparent with two cats, I get the sense of isolation that can creep up on you as you try to empathize with people whose lives have taken on a different character. I'm also well-attuned to the cultural presumption of pronatalism, a term I learned from my sociologist wife that suggests that American culture's normalizing of marriage and parenthood is a social construct that to one degree or another marginalizes single people and nonparents. I became a big fan of the term pronatalism when my friends started busting my chops about when I was going to have a kid, using lofty scriptural allusions such as "arrows in a quiver" to suggest that maybe, just maybe, by not bearing offspring I was sinning against the Lord.
So far, all my fellow "antinatalists" out there, so good. But the film takes a turn when Pencil dies, apparently after having gotten into some rat poison in the neighbor's garage. The insensitivity of Shannon's friends and family is damning; it becomes clear that they don't get her, that she'll go through this grief alone. She finds some sympathy in her neighbor's sentimental solidarity--his childhood dog died accidentally--but he loses his charm when he makes a move on her and it comes out that his dog died because he shot it accidentally while hunting for moose.
Shannon gets a call from the veterinarian's office inviting her to take a new dog, this one abandoned due to some behavioral problems and thus requiring special care. The veterinarian befriends Shannon and introduces her to a more radical animal-loving lifestyle, one that includes veganism (a diet that forgoes any food coming from animals, including milk) and activism (protests against harsh farming practices and such). This new lifestyle puts her more and more at odds with her friends and family, pushing her deeper and deeper into isolation. Suddenly, to the viewer, they seem a lot more normal, and Shannon seems to have come unhinged. She embezzles from her company to fund animal rescue and, when her new dog is put down by her friend the veterinarian after attacking and killing another dog, she frantically adopts nineteen dogs scheduled for euthanization and ultimately attacks her neighbor with a knife.
But wait--there's more. Shannon is nursed back to health and received back into her relationships, all of whom have become more sympathetic not only to her but to her love of animals. Her seemingly soulless boss even sneaks his new pet dog into the office to keep him company. But something has changed: this normal life Shannon has reverted to is no longer enough. She writes an eminently sane farewell letter to all her loved ones, and hits the road to live a new life fighting for animal rights.
My immediate reaction to this film was that I didn't like it. It was hard to keep up emotionally--hard to continually revisit my feelings toward individual characters and to stay supportive of Molly Shannon throughout. But the more I think of it, the more I think that this was the point: the film wants to play with the idea of what constitutes normal, to make the audacious suggestion that normal is what you make of it.
This is nothing new; a survey of contemporary film and television taken with a critical eye reveals that the rules are changing all over the place. Big Love renders as not only legitimate but plausible the notion of polygamy; Weeds moves the ethically dubious terrain of drug dealing from the inner-city street corner to the suburban soccer-mom minivan, and Californication makes a bed-hopping middle-aged lecher into a sympathetic postmodern hero. The film Year of the Dog was written and directed by the same person, Mike White (born the day before I was, incidentally) who wrote Jennifer Aniston's quietly complex film about infidelity, The Good Girl, so perhaps I should have anticipated that what constitutes normal in this film would be a matter of following the bouncing ball.
People of faith often wring their hands in light of this kind of reconfiguring of ethics, morals and worldview. But I want to suggest that it's not, as many assume, some demonic conspiracy to turn everything upside down but rather a good-faith effort to figure out what's true, noble and good in a world where the foundations have been effectively shaken. If one does not automatically grant the premise that God intended sex to be experienced within the confines of a covenant relationship, for example, or that marriage is intended to be a covenant between two and only two people, how in good faith does one determine what constitutes a meaningful relationship? How does one even define covenant? And if a person has entered into a worldview that is fundamentally at odds with the people he or she loves, the people that love him or her, how then shall he or she live? If everybody's looking for a happy ending but nobody's working off the same script, how will the story play out?
For Year of the Dog, the happy ending was for Molly Shannon to leave, to ride off into the sunset not with her brother or her celibate vegan ex-boyfriend or her naively romantic best friend but with a busful of strangers each concluding in isolation from one another that the best life is one spent on behalf of innocent animals victimized by people. I ended the DVD happy for Molly Shannon that she'd found her bliss, but sad that she'd lost so much life in the process.
One conviction that remains with me is certainly this: no happy ending is truly happy if it leaves you sitting alone on a bus.