Maybe you're related to one or perhaps you just dealt with one at a recent dinner party, but they're all over the place these days: the animal people. The ones who'll throw speeches at you about animal rights this and cruelty-free that -- and if you're someone who really loves chowing down on a cheeseburger or a chicken salad, those folks can sometimes come off as obnoxious, pious and fairly insufferable. But y'know, those people do have their heart in the right place -- and more often than not they're absolutely right about certain important things. What Mike White's Year of the Dog does is give you a little perspective into how an animal lover can transform into a fairly militant activist.

What seems trivial and silly to one person might be really important to another, and who are we to dismiss someone else's fiery passion? Plus, c'mon, who doesn't love dogs? Admirable for the way in which it's both snarky and sincere, Year of the Dog looks and feels like a fairly standard "situation" comedy. Molly Shannon plays a lonely-yet-chipper single woman who is clearly past her romantic prime, and one who spends her nights doting on a beautiful little doggy called Pencil. But when her beloved canine ingests some poison during a late-night pee-pee run, poor Peggy is beside herself with grief. It's a testament to writer/director Mike White's talents that Peggy's miseries are shown as humorously tragic, but also simply, plainly painful.

Anyone who's ever loved a family pet will be sure to find something to admire in Peggy's plight. She's not a social pariah, but nor is she what you'd call traditionally attractive or "the life of the party." She's just a simple woman who's a little lonely and has nowhere else to deposit her affections. So after Pencil passes away, Peggy befriends a vegan named Newt (the very funny Peter Sarsgaard), semi-dates the affable schlub next door (John C, Reilly), and starts to become a large pain in the butt where her brother and sister-in-law (Thomas McCarthy and Laura Dern) are concerned. In Peggy's support corner we have the man-crazy Layla (Regina King, funnier here than she's been in a while) and a strangely endearing (yet oddly obtuse) boss named Robin (as played by Josh Pais, who steals every single scene he inhabits).

Year of the Dog is basically one woman's journey from warm-yet-aimless to passionate-yet-kinda alienating, and White (the man who gave us the excellent The Good Girl and the better-than-it-shoulda-been School of Rock) strikes a very delicate balance with this well-written character. We're allowed to laugh at Peggy's shortcomings and idiosyncracies, but we're also forced to look at her as a realistically flawed (and therefore sympathetic) woman.

The filmmakers (and Ms. Shannon herself) are careful to make Peggy only slightly absurd but still entirely human. The movie seems to have a real soft spot for this dog-lovin' little misfit, so when we're asked to laugh at her (frequently unhappy) exploits, we know we can do so in fairly affectionate fashion. It's a sweet, warm, weird and admirably fast-paced little comedy -- and who knows -- it just might give you a little more insight for the next time you're dealing with one of those devout "animal protection" people.