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After scripting two relatively mainstream comedies, School of Rock and Nacho Libre, Mike White makes his debut as writer-director with a story that harks back to his creepy Chuck & Buck (2000). Like the emotionally retarded Buck, the main character here is sweet and innocent but also disturbed, a giving, middle-aged secretary (strikingly played by Molly Shannon) whose grief over the accidental poisoning of her beloved beagle curdles into an increasingly belligerent defense of animal rights. Manohla Dargis has called this a movie about “empathy as a state of grace,” but a more unpleasant countertheme emerges in the single woman's unspoken anger toward men. Despite the gimmicky direction and a disappointing climax, this is a distinctive and unsettling comedy. With Regina King, John C. Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard, Josh Pais, and Laura Dern. PG-13, 98 min.

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