'Movies about animals are always skewed towards family, towards kids," says

Mike White

. "Or they're lyrical and sentimental, like

The Black Stallion

.

"I just thought it would be interesting to do something that had my kind of whatever - something that was a bit more adult, that took things seriously in a way."

And when White, the writer behind Chuck & Buck, The Good Girl, The School of Rock, and TV's late, lamented Freaks and Geeks, says "my kind of whatever" - well, Year of the Dog, which White wrote and which marks his directing debut, is not a kids' movie.

The tale of a lonely office worker, played by Molly Shannon, who loses her much-beloved beagle, dives deep into despair, and resurfaces as an ardent animal-rights activist, Year of the Dog mixes comic portraiture with something sadder, stranger.

Even the way White cast his movie suggests he wasn't simply going for laughs. Laura Dern has a role, as do John C. Reilly and Peter Sarsgaard - serious indie troupers all.

"Molly has a certain big-comedy association," White explains, "and I do, too, in a way. I mean, they put 'From the writer of School of Rock' on the ads. But I didn't want to overstock it with comedians. People will be expecting this rip-roaring knee-slapper, and it's certainly not that.

"I wanted to get [actors] who could get the comedy of it - because I obviously had humor in it - but that didn't necessarily have that kind of association. I went down a list of people I've always wanted to work with, and got lucky."

White, 36, was in town last week to talk up Year of the Dog - which opens Friday at the Ritz at the Bourse and Ritz Sixteen/NJ, and also stars Regina King and many, many dogs. The film had its genesis when, a few years back, a stray cat that White had adopted keeled over, throwing him into an emotional abyss.

"Part of the progression that Peggy, Molly's character, goes through in the movie happened to me," White says. "I had this cat die in the middle of a very stressful period, and I was completely broken up over it. . . . It ended up even having professional ramifications, because I got behind on scripts and the show I was working on shut down. . . .

"It was weird that these little things that I didn't even know I was invested in could have this big effect on my life."

The show White was working on - he created it, and wrote it - was Cracking Up, a short-lived Fox series starring Shannon and Jason Schwartzman. The pressure was on, there were fights with the network, and then White's feline expired.

Although Cracking Up was canceled after only a dozen episodes, White was determined to work with Shannon, the Saturday Night Live veteran, again.

And the dead-cat thing turned into something more than a story about people attached to their pets.

"I feel like I'm at an age where people are starting to really plant their flag in their specific life choices," explains White, a thin, bright-eyed fellow who maintains a self-deprecating manner and a vegan diet. "They become advocates for their particular brand of happiness. . . .

"And I wanted to talk about how sometimes we oppress each other without even meaning to, or knowing it, just because we're so invested in our own version of what makes us happy. And talking about somebody whose source of happiness is a little bit outside of the mainstream - and maybe a source of happiness that's seemingly absurd or embarrassing even to themselves, and then follow them as they are starting to acknowledge what it is that makes them tick and be able to claim it."

Throw in a mess of mutts, a corral of office workers, a couple of guys who may or may not present the possibility of romance, and a brother and sister-in-law with kids, and you have the world of Year of the Dog. White wrote the screenplay early last year, pitched it to Paramount, was in production in June and July, and premiered the thing at Sundance in January.

Although White doesn't appear in Year of the Dog, he's shown up in most of the films he's scripted, including Chuck & Buck (he was Buck, the childhood-friend stalker dude), The Good Girl, Orange County, and The School of Rock.

A native Californian, White has had considerable success with his more mainstream studio comedies. Even Nacho Libre, his goofball Mexican wrestling fable starring Jack Black, earned $100 million worldwide.

If all the pieces fall in place, Black - also the star of School of Rock and Orange County - will appear in the project White is writing for Hot Fuzz director Edgar Wright. That's called Them, which White describes as a "paranoid conspiracy-theory comedy."

In the meantime, White is promoting Year of the Dog, and "hovering over a few half-baked ideas" for projects. Whatever they are, rest assured they'll be, well, "my kind of whatever."

"You just hope that if you do something original, people might want to check it out for that reason alone," he says. "That's certainly how I feel. . . . I've become less interested in the well-oiled machine, the perfectly polished product, and I'm more interested in things that are odd, I guess."

"Hoax" man. It's one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction tales, and its hero is an outrageous liar. In The Hoax, which opened last weekend, Richard Gere stars as author Clifford Irving, who, in 1971, pulled off an epic literary scam, scoring almost $1 million from a publisher for an authorized biography of Howard Hughes.

Despite his claims of complete cooperation from his subject, Irving had never met, spoken to or laid eyes on the reclusive billionaire.

"I thought that it was a novel, a historical fiction/flight-of-fancy-type thing," says William Wheeler, who was sent a treatment of Irving's story. "It was incredibly compelling and engaging, but I didn't think anyone was going to believe it. And then I was told it was true. That made me doubly intrigued."

Wheeler hails from Rosemont. He attended Harriton High (class of '85). His mother is Judi Barton, the former KYW-TV news reporter; his father is Gerald Wheeler, host of an area kiddie show, Lorenzo and Friends, in the 1970s.

Although The Hoax is only his second produced script, Wheeler has a successful Hollywood career going, and he's busy on a number of projects, for Steven Soderbergh, Jay Roach, and The Hoax director Lasse Hallström.

One of those promises to be as outlandish and incredible as Irving's: "I'm working on a Timothy Leary project," says Wheeler, referring to the '60s counterculture guru, disgraced Harvard prof, and LSD avatar whose prison escape was arranged by the Black Panthers.

"It's nice to have a crazy, true story to start with, because I don't have to use my imagination."

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, On Movies Online, at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.