Here we go again… it’s time for Todd Solondz to blow his mysterious mix of misanthropic, dispiriting, yet guardedly-hopeful misery upon us. Since his first feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse, I’ve had a knack for his films in that they never go the way you want them to or end with any real, meaningful finality. Instead, watching one of his films is like watching life in media res, where we know little or are made to care little of what comes before or after the material he shows us. We’re focused on the immediate moment and how his characters choose to deal with their circumstances.
This time, it’s an anthology piece containing four stories surrounding a Dachsund named Wiener-Dog. Wiener-Dog may not be as perverted as Solondz’s other films, but its comedy is still as black as the morning coffee. This isn’t “Saturday Night Live” or Judd Apatow factory hijinks; this is for people who get the humor in things like Steve Buscemi’s foot sticking out of the wood chipper in Fargo or Brendan Gleeson dropping coins off of a cathedral tower before doing something very drastic in In Bruges.
Certain moments of Wiener-Dog are truly galling, but viewed in context of the film and knowing that it’s Todd Solondz’s name on the handle, these things actually make sense. For instance, the first segment contains Julie Delpy like you’ve never seen her before – cutting and brooding, bordering on the manically narcissistic. It’s quite a contrast to her usual type, especially when you consider her character Dina’s browbeaten husband Danny (Tracy Letts) and sweet cancer-survivor son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke). When Remi asks her questions about life with a pet after Danny brings home Wiener-Dog, Dina says horrible, nasty things about her childhood pet and what they had to do to it in order to discourage Remi from getting attached to his new dog.
This family may seem a little dysfunctional at first glance, but there’s a little bit of a Stanley Kubrick-style three-way conflict going on. There’s the functional Danny, who does only what has to be done; Remi represents the ideal and the dreamer, as we see him with Wiener-Dog in fantasy-like, slow-motion takes of them playing joyfully; and finally, there’s the brutish truth, which Dina is more than happy to dish out. And as we all know from Kubrick’s films, these three-way conflicts don’t end very well. When Remi, not knowing much about dogs, feeds Wiener-Dog something he’s not supposed to have, we finally see all three worlds come crashing to a halt, giving rise to the next story.
As a result of complete happenstance, the next person to take care of Wiener-Dog is someone you’d expect to show up in a Todd Solondz film named Wiener-Dog – Dawn Wiener herself (once nicknamed “Wiener-Dog” by her classmates), portrayed in this film by the preciously awkward Greta Gerwig. This segment serves as the lone voice of hope in the entire film, and it also catches us up with three characters from the aforementioned Welcome to the Dollhouse. Dawn, now working as a veterinarian’s assistant, runs into her former antagonist Brandon (formerly Brendan Sexton III, now played by Kieran Culkin) at a convenience store. Solondz shows how far they’ve come since grade school, where Brandon once gave her a time and a place to show up so he could follow through on his threat to rape her (she actually showed up and nothing happened). Dawn’s done well, while Brandon… well, Brandon’s addicted to drugs and dealing with a load of family issues, including the success of his Down’s Syndrome-affected brother Tommy.
The final two segments feature Danny DeVito as a formerly successful screenwriter trying to get out of his soul-crushing job teaching screenwriting, and Ellen Burstyn as a crotchety old spinster who feels like she’s failed at being happy. Along with the first story, these two are rife with gallows humor and a curious combination of modest hope and kicks to the groin. Solondz’s patented way of yanking away whatever happiness or light at the end of the tunnel may exist in the film rears its ugly head here, especially in Wiener-Dog’s final on-screen appearance.
This may be a movie where a dog Forrest Gumps his way from a child owner to young adults to an older adult to a senior citizen, but you’re not going to see him on someone’s lap, being petted and looking content while the screen fades to black to make way for the final credit roll. As with most of Solondz’s films, Wiener-Dog is more about the unexpected than any semblance of the typical. It’s not a movie for everybody, as it’s depressing, mean-spirited, and utterly devoid of anything resembling closure. If Wiener-Dog were a person given the choice to kick someone while they were down, it would do that wholeheartedly. But that, in a nutshell, is the comedy of Wiener-Dog, and amidst its kicks, there is an inexplicable, horrific humor to be found. It’s a humor extremely hard to describe; it’s probably better if Wiener-Dog shows it to you.