Sundance 2016 | Life is Ruff in ‘Wiener-Dog’
There’s one thing I know for certain, and that’s if Todd Solondz puts a cute little dog at the front and center of his movie, you probably shouldn’t get too attached to that dog.
I won’t say whether my hypothesis is 100% correct, but I will say that his latest film Wiener-Dog fits tidily into the Solondz mold. It is a catalogue of human misery, spiked with sweetness of a bitter variety. Wiener-Dog tells the story of four depressing humans and the one thing that links them, besides misfortune: a little dachshund, who briefly enters all of their lives and provides a fleeting moment of happiness.
The dog-shaped baton is passed from owner to owner, picking up unfortunate names like “Doody” and “Cancer” along the way. Solondz is enigmatic about the significance of the title pup, who sometimes matters to the plot but is usually so incidental that there may very well not have been a dog in the original draft of some stories. It’s possible that the marketplace for live-action shorts is simply so lousy right now that the only way to get these particular shorts made was to lump them together with an adorable framing device. (See also: Cat’s Eye.)
Wiener-Dog opens with the story of a young boy (Keaton Nigel Cooke), recovering from cancer, whose parents (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts) decide to get him a dog and instantly regret the decision. The dachshund isn’t more trouble than any other new pet would be, but the adults can’t make room for it in their lives and they soon begin concocting elaborate lies for their young son, to explain complex ideas that they obviously don’t understand and to emotionally manipulate him into not caring whether or not the animal lives or dies. It’s despicable, and yet we wonder as the story progresses whether this is exactly how violent fables like Little Red Riding Hood got started: to control the young, for their own good or otherwise, and secretly reveal the anxieties and failures of the storyteller.
Eventually the dachshund winds up in the arms of Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), the protagonist of Todd Solondz’s earlier breakout film Welcome to the Dollhouse, who then embarks on a mysterious and impromptu road trip with her old junior high school bully (Kieran Culkin). The sight of the blonde, straight-haired Gerwig as Wiener is startling and hard to get used to, and this short’s surprisingly kind heart clashes uncomfortably with the knowledge – gleaned from Solondz’s Palindromes – that she eventually kills herself. Maybe Solondz is rewriting history as an apology to his creation, or maybe he’s only giving her a moment of happiness to make her fate all that more unpleasant. It’s hard to tell with Solondz.
Then – and never mind how – the dachshund turns up with a miserable film school professor named Schmertz (Danny DeVito), who had one success and now flounders as a footnote on his agent’s client list while suffering the insufferable intelligentsia of his students. They scoff at his surprisingly concise and excellent writing advice – “What if? And what then?” – and conspire against him, and Schmertz’s eventual response is, frankly, brilliant and sad and satisfying. It’s a fantastic bit of filmmaking, and DeVito gives one of his best performances (which is saying a lot).
And finally, the dachshund falls into the arms of an elderly woman (Ellen Burstyn), whose granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) arrives for an unexpected visit for totally expected reasons. Burstyn couldn’t seem give any of the craps, apparently, and yet in just two short scenes we learn an abundance about her character: her life, her loyalties, and her many disappointments. And yet the ending may prove divisive.
As a collection of thinly connected shorts, Wiener-Dog is an impressive motion picture. The satirical and melancholy worldview of Todd Solondz can sometimes be so hard to swallow that it goes down more easily in smaller doses, especially with an adorable widdle dog as a chaser. It may lack the cohesion that its framing device seems to promise but Wiener-Dog holds together – if nothing else – as an intriguing collection of tales from a filmmaker who has interesting ideas to explore, and access to a dog.
Top Photo Courtesy of Sundance Institute
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.