Film Review: Wiener-Dog

A dog wanders through a quartet of miserable tales in this monotonous black comedy.
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Todd Solondz’s belief in people’s inherently selfish, cruel wretchedness is once again expressed in drolly bleak fashion in Wiener-Dog, a quartet of loosely related tales connected by a small, innocent, diarrhea-expelling pooch. For those familiar with the Happiness and Palindromes director’s oeuvre, Solondz’s latest will feel immediately familiar, what with its unpleasant portrait of miserabilist New Jersey life and his alternating empathy for, and ridicule of, everyday losers condemned to suffer, either alone or together. No matter its scattershot moments of prickly black humor, it’s a work that finds the artist repeating himself both thematically and—at least with regards to one of his stories’ casting-stunt gimmicks—formally as well.

Replete with absurdly self-aware intermission title cards that find the animal wandering through various American landscapes, Wiener-Dog’s four segments proceed from youth to old age, and commence with the cute dog—a modern-day variation of the witness-to-suffering donkey from Robert Bresson’s Au Hazard Balthazar—being adopted by Danny (Tracy Letts) for his son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), who’s apparently just recovered from cancer. Danny’s wife Dina (Julie Delpy) hates the tiny pet, but tolerates her just like she puts up with her son’s questions about reproduction, neutering and euthanasia. Marked by pans across his tacky environments, Solondz shoots his material in a flat, straightforward manner that accentuates both the grotesqueness of his milieus—from Danny and Dina’s modernist home, to a later NASCAR-advertising Sunoco gas station and an elderly woman’s cluttered home—and the furious unhappiness simmering beneath their ordinary exteriors. Meanwhile, he intermittently indulges in slow-motion that captures, with a caustically mocking eye, their pitiful joy and inescapable sorrow.

After failing to find a permanent home with Remi, Wiener-Dog winds up at a veterinarian’s office, where she’s saved from death by staffer Dawn (Greta Gerwig). In a decision reminiscent of Life During Wartime’s re-casting gimmick—which is designed to underline how people can’t change their futile fates—Gerwig’s character is the same one played by Heather Matarazzo in Solondz’s 1995 debut, Welcome to the Dollhouse. There’s little purpose to this stunt, considering that Gerwig embodies her as merely another of the filmmaker’s stock sad-sacks. However, hers is the material’s sole hopeful chapter, as Dawn takes her four-legged companion (whom she names “Doody”) on a road trip with jerky former classmate Brandon (Kieran Culkin) to break some bad news to Brandon’s Down syndrome-afflicted brother Tommy (Connor Long)—who enjoys videogames in which players decapitate women with machetes—and his wife April (Bridget Brown).

From that despondent locale (where Solondz comes perilously close to turning Tommy and April’s Down syndrome into a joke), Wiener-Dog segues to once-successful screenwriter Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), who now commutes from a cruddy New Jersey apartment to a Manhattan college at which he suffers indignities from staffers, students and his b.s.-spouting agent. DeVito slumps his shoulders and mopes his way through his daily grind, but Schmerz’s torment is at once bracingly caustic and one-note. That’s also true of the despair plaguing Nana (Ellen Burstyn), whose end-of-days routine wearing giant sunglasses and being doted on by a caregiver is interrupted by the appearance of her equally discontented granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet), who visits looking for a handout while accompanied by a ridiculously pretentious artist boyfriend named Fantasy (Michael Shaw) who’s preoccupied with “mortality.”

Solondz’s script is interested in that topic as well—namely, how life is a series of disappointments, embarrassments and failures that one can’t repair, avoid or escape. Wiener-Dog contends that we’re all destined to become nothing more than roadkill—and that expecting any dignity in (or after) death is a fool’s game. Solondz’s harsh worldview certainly results in sporadic moments of shake-your-head amusement, the finest of which is a pitch-perfect close-up of Mamet’s face veering from concern to quiet anguish as she listens to a gift she’s brought her grandmother suffer a deliberately brutal end. But given how it retreads its maker’s favorite territory, the film’s deadpan pessimism ultimately registers as merely more of the monotonous same.

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