Year of the Dog, the latest film by director Mike White (Nacho Libre, School of Rock, The Good Girl) is a touching, funny tale about love, loss, and finding meaning in a meaningless world. No, really, it is -- just not in the cliched, melodramatic sense. The set-up of the film immediately calls to mind 2005's comedic smash hit, 40-Year-Old Virgin, but with a female lead instead of a guy. Where Virgin gave us a peek into the life of 40-year-old guy who decorates his apartment with new-in-box action figures and plays videogames by himself all the time, Year of the Dog gives us a window into the life of Peggy (Molly Shannon), a similarly-aged woman living alone with her beagle, Pencil in her starkly neat home.

One of the strengths of Virgin was that it never stooped to mockery of main character Andy (Steve Carrell), the sad sack who's never managed to get laid. Andy wasn't ugly, he didn't have horrible breath, and he wasn't a serial killer with mommy issues; he was just a normal guy who dressed neatly and had a neurotic fear of sex after several bad experiences trying to lose his virginity. Andy was like a lot of 30-and-40-something guys living alone or in their parents' basement apartment, mired in a world where computer games and internet chat take the place of a real social life. Likewise, in Year of the Dog, Peggy is never caricatured as a miserable old maid; she's just a woman for whom the progression of a relationship to marriage never happened.
While she doesn't seem entirely happy with her lot, neither is she wallowing in the depths of despair. She works diligently at her job, she cares for and pampers her dog, and she buys gifts for her young niece and nephew. At night, she rubs lotion on her skin (and on Pencil's paws) as they snuggle in their chair, and she falls asleep snuggled with Pencil in bed, rubbing his furry little tummy. Pencil is both Peggy's companion and security blanket. When Pencil dies a tragic and mysterious death in the yard of Peggy's neighbor, Al (John C. Reilly), Peggy is hurled headfirst into a grief so deep that her family and friends can't quite comprehend it.
Left alone without Pencil, Peggy has to navigate her way back to a place where life has meaning again. All around her, she sees people reaching for what makes them happy: Her brother Pier (Thomas McCarthy) and sister-in-law Bret (Laura Dern) seek happiness in their perfect kids and large, stylishly decorated (and surprisingly neat, for a couple with two young children) home, filled with all the things that money can buy; her girlfriend Layla (Regina King) wants an engagment ring to make her feel secure in her relationship with her boyfriend Don (Dale Godboldo) -- but Peggy knows a secret about Don that makes her question her friend's future happiness. Even neighbor Al, whose home is filled with the stuffed body parts of animals he's killed on hunting trips, has no shortage of attractive women in his life.

Then Peggy meets Newt (Peter Sarsgaard), an animal activist who convinces her to adopt Valentine, a German Shepherd with anger management issues. In Newt, Peggy feels that she might at last have found a soulmate -- someone who shares and understands the special place animals have in her heart. Newt turns Peggy onto the path of animal activism, and before she knows it, she's buying vegan cookbooks and spending all her spare time at work browsing the websites of animal rights' organizations. But Peggy is still just tenuously clinging to normalcy, and when several stressful events pile on top of each other, she really starts to fall apart. Will she be able to pull herself together and be once again the predictable Peggy everyone can rely upon? Or will Peggy have to find a new path for herself that brings her life deeper meaning?

Although Year of the Dog deals with issues of grief and what gives life meaning, White refrains from going maudlin, showing us both the happy and sad moments within Peggy's story. Life is not all tragedy, even when we feel mired in it; one of the hardest things to deal with in working through grief is how you can feel numb and stuck and miserable while all around you the world goes on as normal. When we lose someone we love, we want the rest of the world to feel the pain we are feeling, but the sun goes on rising and setting, children play and laugh, and work still has to be done. White heightens the clash of the numbness of grief with the reality of life by setting his film in perpetually sunny Southern California, where blue skies and warm weather contrast with the lights and trappings of the Christmas season, and the very sunlight is an affront to Peggy's sorrow. White also manages to mine the little moments of comedy to lighten what might otherwise turn his exploration of grief into a weighty "message" film.

White's script and direction are bolstered with strong performances by his cast. Shannon, who I always think of as more of a straight comedic actress because of her days as a cast member on Saturday Night Live, shows here a depth that perfectly captures Peggy's sense of isolation, grief and loneliness. Dern and McCarthy provide comic relief as the uptight parents who freak out if anyone mentions unpleasant things -- like the death of a dog -- around daughter Lissie ("Mmmmm ... D-E-A-T-H ... that's a little ... heavy for her ..."). They're the kind of well-meaning but overly protective parents who make you think, "Yup, those kids are headed for therapy in 20 years ..." Dern must have been spending some time hanging out with suburban playgroups, because she captures that peculiar sense of control-freakishness that a lot of women I've known tend to adopt in the wake of having kids.

Reilly plays the happy-hunting neighbor as a real person, not an over-the-top macho caricature ala Gaston from Disney's Beauty and the Beast. In Reilly's hands, Al is just an average guy who's grown up enjoying hunting. There are lots of guys like Al out there, guys who love to hunt and for whom hunting recalls fond memories of days spent in the wilderness with male relatives, tracking prey. Al is proud of his hunting trophies, and it simply never occurs to him that Peggy or anyone else might find his display of dead animals a bit morbid. Also worth noting are King, who's quite funny in several of the scenes, in spite of the challenges of avoiding any unsightly "wardrobe malfunctions" with the cleavage-and-thigh-baring outfits she's dressed in throughout the film, and Josh Pais (who I last saw as a pervy doctor in Teeth) as Peggy's self-absorbed boss, Robin, who walks stiffly around as though he somehow got a golf putter wedged up his nether regions.

While not an all-out laugh fest, Year of the Dog delivers enough humor to keep the audience from getting bogged down in Peggy's grief, while at the same time handling her story with charm and sensitivity. By the end of it, you can't help but root for Peggy to emerge from her grief at the loss of Pencil to find a better, more meaningful life path for herself. A sweet, heartfelt film, Year of the Dog is a nice alternative to some of the other fare out there, perfect for a fun date night flick or a girls' night out.