Cast: Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts, Danny Devito, Ellen Burstyn, Zosia Mamet
Director: Todd Solondz
Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
In an age of political correctness and mass audience pandering, there’s something uniquely reassuring about the myopic worldview of filmmaker Todd Solondz. Like a less prolific, more deadpan version of Woody Allen, Solondz has been exploring his very particular brand of satirical misanthropy since the 1990s; a time where independent film actually seemed to mean something and where artists, no matter how controversial, were given the freedom to explore divisive material. Or, at least, that’s the way it seems in retrospect. However, that notion may also be a product of nostalgia rather than a factual statement, because we are constantly looking back to previous decade as the “golden age” of this or that. Still, there’s no question that we are in a cultural moment reluctant to embrace nihilism as a badge of honor, lest actual real-world horrors hit too close to home.
Solodnz, though, doesn’t seem interested in capturing the zeitgeist. Instead, he continues making the kinds of films he’s always made since his breakout Welcome to the Dollhouse in 1995, charting a series of miserable characters resigned to their fates in a joyless world. With Wiener-Dog, he reconfigures a few characters from that picture and uses a dachshund as a dramatic device linking a series of four separate stories. Surprisingly, there are scattered moments of genuine empathy tossed aside like cinematic breadcrumbs for attentive viewers. Most, however, won’t have the patience to look for them.
In terms of psychological continuity, Wiener-Dog is purposefully lacking. Other than the first two stories, there’s very little connective tissue between the owners and the dog, and what we are left with is essentially a batch of darkly comic vignettes all pointing to an inevitable cruel punch-line. In the first episode, two emotionally distant parents (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts, respectively) bring home the cute little dachshund for their son (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a young cancer survivor. This is the most prototypical Solondz setup in which a wise kid reacts and circumvents the narcissism and suburban angst of his upper class parents, and in some ways, the most successful of the stories in showcasing the director’s strengths. The second vignette sees Greta Gerwig taking on the role originally played by Heather Matarazzo from Dollhouse and Kieran Culkin portraying the former bully Brandon, who was played by Brendan Sexton III. Now adults, the two run into each other at a convenience store and then embark on a road trip, with the dachsund, now named Doody, in tow. Here, Solondz offers a surprising amount of tonal restraint; layering on the awkward quirk between two lonely people who unwittingly have found each other at just the right time. There’s a late scene involving Culkin and his developmentally delayed brother that one might suspect Solondz will play for mean-spirited irony, but instead, it’s imbued with a vulnerability which feels much riskier and more provocative than any of the film’s other shock tactics.
Where the picture ultimately falters, however, is with the last two stories, which presents us with scenarios we’ve seen from Solondz before, only this time there’s a desperation to the inevitable third act punch-line. Danny Devito gives a nicely subdued performance as a sad sack screenwriter in the third vignette and it’s always nice to see Ellen Burstyn on screen in the final chapter, even if she’s portraying yet another psychologically unbalanced senior citizen on the verge of death. The problem with the Devito scenes is that Solondz has already mined this territory before in his 2001 film Storytelling; a brutal auto-critique which lambasted the naysayers while calling his own methods into question. Here, watching Devito portray the Solodnz stand-in as a grumpy old coot raging against pretentious art-school kids and a politically correct culture of uber-sensitivity, is, well, pathetically reductive. What may have been brave during the 1990s now seems tired, and Solodnz’s particular insights into the special snowflake generation of millennial privilege is both obvious and callous, and worst of all, not all that funny. However, Solodnz really lets his movie get away from him during the last act, which sees Burstyn’s lonely blind woman dealing with her self-involved granddaughter (Zosia Mamet), a segment which feels tacked on simply so that he can make his final grim joke about the futility of human existence.
Ultimately, the ending of Wiener-Dog is meant to be disturbing and blackly funny, but for it to truly work, it needs to balance it’s pure heartlessness with psychological insight that would give this vision of human folly the sting of painful truth. Otherwise, it’s just a wallow through a suburban trail of canine diarrhea, and not even Solodnz, as cunning as he is, can make that compelling for longer than an entire neighborhood block.