Director: Todd Solondz
Stars: Julie Delpy, Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito
Wiener-Dog is the latest film from Todd Solondz. It finds the writer/director on fine form, pedaling more of his homespun all-American nihilism in which depraved hilarity and gut-punch sadness collide. That might not sound like the best night out but, depending on your sense of humour (or rather depending on how warped said sense of humour is), you may just find yourself sat in front of the best comedy of the year so far*.
Solondz has always enjoyed presenting a broad spectrum of dysfunctionality. Wiener-Dog is made up of four stories, each running for about 20 minutes or so, following the adventures of a cute, wobbly little dachshund as it passes from owner to owner. Dog lovers may want to take a pause, however, as – first story aside – man’s best friend is not the centre of attention; merely the through line for a set of increasingly disparate vignettes.
Indeed most of your doggy action appears upfront with the film’s funniest segment. Rescued from the pound, Wiener-Dog first encounters a sterile, middle-class LA home. The kind of place where yoga is referred to as ‘body maintenance’. Young Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) is smitten with his first pet, unphased by the beleaguered reactions of his put-upon parents (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts; who between them outright steal the whole film). It is here that Solondz hyper-real reflection of America is reasserted. There’s always a uniquely gaudy feel to his cinema, a slightly askew beauty that reveals a hidden ugliness. Letts’ unabashed contempt for the dog is hilariously conjured through his frequent and loud expulsion of expletives, while Delpy can’t seem to help but dig herself hideous holes as she attempts to sate Remi’s wide-eyed curiosity.
Our canine hero finally finds a name with its second owner. Greta Gerwig steps into the shoes of Dawn Wiener (last seen portrayed by Heather Matarazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse). Gerwig’s iteration of Wiener is a shade more optimistic and open to humanity, extending hopes of love and friendship toward malcontent junkie Brandon (Kieran Culkin) as the film turns into a bleak road trip fuelled by bad news and heroin. Solondz’ wicked and guiltless humour already established, the appearance of Brandon’s Down’s syndrome brother Tommy and his wife April raises audience hackles as we wait for the off colour joke at their expense, yet Solondz wryly plays with these expectations. They turn out to perhaps Wiener-Dog‘s healthiest, most well-adjusted couple (though everything here is relative of course).
Following the best intermission you’ll ever see (wholly for entertainment purposes; the film can be easily digested in one, swift, 88 minute sitting), things nearly come beautifully unstuck in the third story, which concerns Danny DeVito’s washed up screenwriter Dave Schmerz; a one-hit wonder struggling to get his lousy new script approved and in danger of losing his untenured job lecturing at a university. Fine as DeVito is at nailing world-weary frustration, one can’t help but feel as though Solondz is looking into a funhouse mirror at this point. It suggests exasperated autobiography and in turn feels mightily indulgent. The dog barely features (though when it does, it’s to stunning effect). For a short while Wiener-Dog comes dangerously close to losing it’s train of thought in favour of a lot of barely contained bitterness at Hollywood’s catch-22 system. As ever with Solondz, Schmerz is far from righteous, however; he’s as pitiably deluded and maniacally self-interested as anyone.
Lastly, as it becomes clear that we’re journeying through life from youth to death, we have a riotously caustic Ellen Burstyn credited merely as ‘Nana’, elderly relative to young and struggling Zoe (Zosia Mamet), who has turned up on her doorstep looking for a handout. What could easily have felt like the least of the stories is buoyed by a late scene which perhaps ranks as the strangest Wiener-Dog offers, before going out on a rather sick (but guiltily enjoyable) punchline; a joke Solondz has sneakily set up only minutes earlier.
The material selected can seem somewhat arbitrary. As arbitrary as the method of connection (the first two stories find themselves genuinely tied together, but by the time we hit the interval Solondz has dispensed with such niceties). Yet Wiener-Dog succeeds in feeling in some way coherent for it’s tonally unphased worldview. That hapless sausage-dog is an innocent and naive soul against which Solondz both celebrates and despairs with humanity and all it’s easily discovered failings. His people are weak and pitiable, but they’re his people. It’s a curiously likable mix of compassion and derision. Solondz presents us a broken America, but one more fascinating for all it’s fractures.
This in itself may not sound like new ground for Solondz – indeed its the career he’s made for himself – but Wiener-Dog is one of the breezier iterations of his trademark, boasting some of his biggest laughs, even if some of them come at considerable cost. His is a world of awkwardness and failure, but, like a Flaming Lips song, the palette chosen offsets the darkness with rainbow coloured glee. This collision of light and dark, of the warped and the whimsical, might create a sense of mismatched nausea were the approach not completely assured and the method of delivery so consistently monitored.
One thing’s for sure, this is the only place you’re likely to hear a bedtime story about a canine rapist named Mohammed. How you react to that prospect will likely dictate much of your reaction to Wiener-Dog.
*if Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! hadn’t already happened.