Morosely amused filmmaker constructs a shaggy dog tale for a change
Directed by Todd Solondz
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Julie Delpy, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn
In real life, filmmaker Todd Solondz is probably a perfectly sociable man who hangs out at parties, shops at Barnes & Noble and generally gets along well with his fellow man. But on screen the writer-director exudes a cinematic sense of misanthropy topped only by Danish sourpuss Lars von Trier (Nymphomaniac, Antichrist, Melancholia, Dogville, Dancer in the Dark). Solondz’ films (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Storytelling, Palindromes, Life During Wartime) generally center on miserable people trying (and failing) to live their petty, banal lives. Though he frequently injects his films with an uncomfortable and bitter sense of humor, it’s rarely enough to distract from the cruel and unrelenting realism of his narratives. Unlike John Waters, whose love for weirdos and social misfits shines, saintlike, from every frame of film he shoots, Solondz seems to glare judgmentally at his characters with all the disappointment of Chris Hansen stepping out from behind the hidden camera on “To Catch a Predator.” This is not to say Solondz isn’t a provocative and original storyteller. But he’s definitely a filmmaker for select tastes and certain moods.
Solondz’ latest—financed by online innovator Amazon Studios—is an arbitrary collection of vignettes centered around the titular, tubular canine as it passes from one luckless owner to another. In “hyperlinked” anthologies such as Pulp Fiction, Amores Perros or Crash, all the stories are eventually interconnected. But Wiener-Dog is more of a “portmanteau” film with random short stories smashed end-to-end with little narrative or stylistic connection, other than a singular object in common. (Think The Yellow Rolls-Royce, The Red Violin, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or, heck, Heavy Metal).
The film starts out on the wrong foot with a dreary little tale of a 9-year-old cancer survivor (Keaton Nigel Cooke) given a stray dachshund by his mean dad (Tracy Letts) and his even meaner mom (Julie Delpy). The dog gets diarrhea and they send it to the vet to be euthanized. That’s about it for that tale. Not even the usually reliable Delpy can save this mean-spirited segment (in which she’s forced to deliver an extended monologue about doggy rape). Fortunately, things improve after that.
Solondz’ latest—financed by online innovator Amazon Studios—is an arbitrary collection of vignettes centered around the titular, tubular canine as it passes from one luckless owner to another.
Solondz fans are the most receptive audience here for several reasons—not the least of which is that this film features the return of Solondz’ most indelible creation, awkward suburban tween Dawn Wiener from 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse. If you’ve been paying attention, this marks the third appearance of the hapless Ms. Wiener (sort of). Solondz’ wildly experimental 2004 film Palindromes started off with Wiener’s funeral. Ignoring that untimely end, Wiener-Dog’s second and most fleshed-out segment finds Dawn (ubiquitous indie muse du jour Greta Gerwig replacing Heather Matarazzo) working as a veterinary assistant. Sensing some sort of kinship, she rescues the doomed dog and takes it home with her. In short order she crosses paths with her former high school tormenter Brandon McCarthy (Kieran Culkin subbing for Brendan Sexton III). On a whim she agrees to accompany the now-directionless loner on a cross-country road trip. The story crosses oddball images (hitchhiking mariachis) with some more emotional elements (Brandon’s developmentally disabled brother) for what feels like a complete, if curious, tale about belated connection and understanding. It’s not a bad capper to Dawn’s story, really, and represents the one glimmer of hope in this increasingly bleak journey.
Next up is Danny DeVito, who stops by as a sad sack film professor rapidly losing his ability to coast on that one screenplay he wrote 19 years ago. Despite his aura of world-weariness and desperation, he clings to the ridiculous belief that he can still score big in Hollywood. DeVito’s always been great playing marginalized characters like this, and Solondz gets in plenty of very funny digs at the alternate vapidity and pretension of the film industry. Unfortunately, the story kind of fizzles out without giving DeVito the cathartic or comedic payoff he deserves.
Things wrap up well at least with the always excellent Ellen Burstyn snarling her way though the role of a cranky old New Jersey nana whose flaky granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) shows up to pay a visit (and to beg for money). The segment features the film’s most poetic and inventive twist—which causes nana to confront the life (or lives) she could have led. More inventiveness like this would certainly have given Wiener-Dog more of a punch.
As it is, the film is a very mixed bag. The tone wanders all over the map. (At one point, we’re treated to a goofy, musical “intermission” written by Grammy-, Emmy- and Tony-winning composer Marc Shaiman.) Despite serving as both the title and the sole connective tissue, our stray dachshund doesn’t have much impact positively or negatively on the lives of its string of dysfunctional owners. The humor is occasionally biting, but it’s mostly just uncomfortable. And the drama is positively morose. It’s the kind of thing you’d get if Woody Allen became suicidally depressed and moved to suburban New Jersey. “Life’s a bitch, and then you die,” Solondz seems to be telling us, blithely unconcerned whether we side with his sunless outlook or not.