Todd Solondz writes and directs Wiener-Dog, his first film since 2011’s Dark Horse. The project takes the form of an anthology with four stories intertwined by the titular dachshund. Solondz uses these four pieces to craft unique tales drenched in morose, heartbreak and jet black comedy in this amusingly downbeat look at humanity.
Wiener-Dog opens with the titular hound being abandoned at a small pet shop where he’s taken in by a financially well-to-do couple (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts) and their son recovering from a rare blood disorder. Solondz uses this segment to compare the dichotomy between adult and child perspectives on life – darkened cynical bitterness vs. youthful optimism – using the wiener-dog as a starting point. From Delpy’s deadpan explanation of why dogs must be spayed (her French poodle was raped by a dog called Mohammed with venereal diseases after not being spayed, she tells her son with grim authority) to Letts’ attitude that a dog must have its will broken and submit. Solondz handles these with such faux-seriousness that it draws to light how reactionary and ridiculous people can be in this day and age.
Wiener-Dog gains further amusing awkwardness through the reprisal of Dawn Wiener (Welcome to the Dollhouse) – previously thought dead in Solondz’s Palindromes, now in the form of Greta Gerwig. The titular mutt sound finds himself in the hands of rogue vet’s assistant Dawn, who embarks on an uncomfortable cross-country journey with an old school classmate. As Solondz does so well, the second segment grimly celebrates lonely oddballs being brought together under bizarre, often unexplainable or inconspicuous circumstances (see Happiness). With DoP Edward Lachman, Solondz captures a blend of off-kilter sun stroked middle American suburbia blended with the darker recesses of the country.
After a brief interval with a catchy country interlude (“The Ballad of Wiener Dog”) that feels a little Frankie Laine, Solondz satirises the current state of the film industry and millennial over-sensitivity with amusing gusto. Wiener-Dog finds herself in the ownership of teacher/struggling-screenwriter Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito). Opening with a drawn out description of a student’s comic-book script, we see the drained writer attempt to sell his own script within the banal over-politeness (some may say bullshit) of contemporary Hollywood. Schmerz is ridiculed by his entitled millennial students who label him a dinosaur for his traditional approaches to the craft (“What if? And then what?”) and reject his pessimistic attitude. This segment provides us with another case of the loneliness and isolation that Solondz crafts so well, with a bleak outlook of the world driven by wickedly black humour and a grim honesty.
The concluding chapter of Wiener-Dog sees Solondz take the darkness one step further in this tale of a regretful and embittered Grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) meeting her Granddaughter and her performance artist boyfriend, Fantasy. Solondz uses this to play with the concept of regret and the idea of what could have been. It is the least effective of the four, but Burstyn packs the role with a venomous waspiness (feeling like something that could have been played by Elaine Stritch a while back) that proceedings stay darkly comic.
Wiener-Dog is as amusing as it is uncomfortable. Solondz remains a unique voice in the world of independent cinema and his latest proves that there is still a place for his oddball mix of heartbreak, loneliness and jet black humour.