It’ll surprise no-one who has caught any of his previous features, but Todd Solondz’s latest Wiener-Dog is a pitch-black comedy that’s shot through with a strong sense of misanthropy, lashings of loneliness, rather negative depictions of family life and cutting takedowns of young, self-centred creative types. It harks back to his debut feature Welcome To The Dollhouse, which also featured a character named Dawn Wiener (despite being killed off in an earlier film she’s alive here and played by Greta Gerwig), while some of the themes and structure occasionally bring to mind his sophomore effort Happiness, though in truth this is a different kind of beast than those two earlier films: it’s a portmanteau of four distinct stories, all strange and amusing in their own way, and all tentatively linked together by a brown daschund (I’m fairly certain it’s the same dog in the first two tales, though whether it is supposed to be in the second two isn’t abundantly clear, as Solondz dispenses with any obvious connecting narrative).
The first tale stars Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy as a couple in a loveless marriage who live in one of those modern, airy houses that are only ever owned by couples who are in loveless marriages. Their only child Remi (Keaton Michael Cooke) is recovering from cancer, and so as a treat the father buys Remi a dog, which the boy quickly names ‘Wiener-Dog’ before subsequently developing a bond with his new best friend. The parents, however, have little time for the pet and fail to hide their indifference, quickly getting it spayed and locking it in a small cage until it has been housebroken. The father’s stern, repeated cries of ‘heel, motherfucker, heel!’ don’t seem to work and through various conversations the mother reveals herself to be uncaring, unsympathetic and an Islamophobe, among other things. Poor Remi, and poor Wiener-Dog.The themes of isolation and uncaring relatives bleed into the second tale, which sees Gerwig and Kieran Culkin playing former classmates who bump into one another in a general store before hooking up for a road trip. She quits her job as a vet’s assistant and steals a daschund that’s about to be put down – very possibly the same pooch as the one in the first story – while he plays a former school bully who we see taking heroin before paying a visit to his brother, to whom he lies and reassures by saying that he is now clean. The dog, by now, has been renamed Doody. The death of a parent looms over the story, but this is actually the most positive, upbeat quarter of the film, even if it does involve a random, Jarmuschian trio of homesick Mexican mariachi musicians.
The humour in these first two pieces is very dark, and it’s apparent early on that Wiener-Dog is the kind of film that most cinemagoers will hate. Not just dislike … but hate. It’s occasionally offensive, sometimes disgusting, often uncomfortable and full of stitled conversations and awkward character behaviour, but I like Solondz’s bleak sense of humour a lot and thoroughly enjoyed both of these vignettes. I wasn’t prepared for what happened next, around the mid-way point of the film, but I’ll refrain from spoiling that; suffice it to say it’s the best intermission I’ve seen in a long time, and thankfully with regard to such enforced breaks it’s entirely free of the kind of overblown ‘I’m the keeper of the cinematic flame’ style proclamations that have been favoured by one Quentin Tarantino of late. Instead it’s playful, and stoopid, and it put a big smile on my face.
The two later stories are sadder but also, oddly, funnier. In a self-referential move by Solondz, Danny DeVito plays a lonely, weary, downbeat New York film lecturer named Dave Schmertz – another wiener-dog owner – who once wrote a successful screenplay but is now routinely mocked by his students and returning alumni for being behind the times and for teaching the same thing over and over again (his teaching mantra ‘What if? Then what?’ becomes an irresistible coda during the bizarre final few minutes of the story). Solondz himself has taught screenwriting and directing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts since 2009, and one wonders just how much of his experience has made its way into this film; whatever the amount, the interviews and meetings Schmerz holds with students and potential students are hilarious, and I love the idea that earnest young film school undergraduates have been going into mind-numbing detail when pitching their superhero stories to Solondz in real life.Finally, Ellen Burstyn is on terrific form as an elderly grandmother who is visited by her granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) and her granddaughter’s conceptual artist boyfriend Fantasy (Michael Shaw). Burstyn’s character also owns a daschund, and if it’s the same one we’ve seen previously it has now been renamed ‘Cancer’, which – the elderly lady suggests – just seemed to fit as a name. (It also links the film back to the first story.) As with the previous part of the film it seems that millennials are drawing Solondz’s ire here, though the granddaughter does command some sympathy when we begin to realise just how awful her boyfriend is, and eventually the story takes a strange turn as it begins to focus on the grandmother’s negative character traits. And thus you realise that Solondz’s film is not only about people dealing with death, or the near possibility of death in some way or another, but also the way in which people will one day reflect on their lives and behaviour: their lies, their grudges, their decisions, their regrets.
Near the end of this final segment there is an uncomfortable shot that may make you laugh or may provoke you into feeling disgust, and perhaps even anger towards the filmmaker; certainly given the length of the shot Solondz is trying to elicit one of the two responses from viewers. The absurdity of it made me giggle – in a cinema where few other people were laughing at all – and it also reminded me of an earlier scene, in which for an entire minute a camera slowly pans over a ludicrously long pile of doggy diahorrea on the street, while the mournful, haunting and beautiful Claire de Lune plays on the soundtrack. And I think that’s the only way I can possibly recommend the film; I really liked it, but you have to buy into Solondz’s idea of humour and his jaundiced, poisonous worldview, or it’ll be a very long hour-and-a-half. Wiener-Dog is wilfully difficult and self-indulgent, and its downbeat, defeatist nature makes it the absolute antithesis of this current (or any) anodyne blockbuster season, but it’s great fun if you can get on board.
Directed by: Todd Solondz.
Written by: Todd Solondz.
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Kieran Culkin, Greta Gerwig, Julie Delpy, Danny DeVito, Tracy Letts, Zosia Mamet, Keaton Michael Cooke, Sharon Washington, Michael Shaw.
Cinematography: Edward Lachman.
Editing: Kevin Messman.
Music: James Lavino, Nathan Larson, Devendra Banhart.
Running Time: 88 minutes.