Some filmmakers don’t have much interest in making the audience feel good about what they’re seeing on screen. I’m not talking about filmmakers like Steve McQueen who focuses his works on stories of pain and suffering. No, I’m talking about filmmakers like Todd Solondz, seemingly the heir apparent to filthy throne one reigned upon by John Waters. Throughout his career, Soldondz has shunned conventionality in favor of his darkly comedic stories featuring moments that operate with equal parts shock and disgust with a complete neglect for good taste. All of which, mind you, isn’t a bad thing as evidenced by Solondz’s latest movie Wiener-Dog, a twisted series of vignettes featuring broken people in broken relationships musing about mortality. The only connective tissue aside from the thematics of these stories are the adorable little wiener-dog that frequently changing ownership. As much I personally enjoyed Wiener-Dog, I must suggest caution to those unfamiliar with films of Todd Solondz.
The first segment of Wiener-Dog features a well-to-do family living in a posh, expansive suburban home. The father, Danny (Tracy Letts), has just gotten his son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) a wiener-dog for a present much to the chagrin of his wife Dina (Julie Delpy). Remi has just overcome a battle with an illness and quickly forms a bond with his new pet. Meanwhile, the tension between his parents is palpable. Dina imparts life lessons to her inquisitive son, often in an extremely questionable manner aiding the film’s dark comedic overtones. When young Remi unwittingly give the wiener-dog a piece of a granola bar, the dog’s digestive system is ravaged with spouts of uncontrollable diarrhea – the dog’s illness amply illustrated with long tracking shots of the trail of liquid feces left behind. With little recourse to help the ailing pet, Remi’s father takes the dog to the vet to be put down, teaching the young boy a lesson about life and death.
Fear not for at the vet’s office, Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig) takes pity on the ill wiener-dog and takes him home where she nurses her back to health. A chance encounter with Brandon (Kieran Culkin), an old acquaintance from high school, takes the two on a road trip to Ohio, wiener-dog nestled on Dawn’s lap. Though Gerwig’s character shares the name of Heather Matarazzo’s character from Welcome to the Dollhouse, it’s not entirely clear if Solondz is toying with the audience by reusing the same name or reviving the character in this segment of the film. (Solondz has done similar thing with his film Palindromes, which featured multiple actors in the same role, including Dawn Wiener.) Brandon is aloof towards the wide-eyed Dawn as they drive to visit his brother Tommy (Connor Long) and sister-in-law April (Bridget M. Brown), a happily married couple with Down syndrome. Brandon has come this way to impart some bad news for his brother, and continues the film’s themes of broken people and issues of mortality.
Next, the wiener-dog finds herself in the possession of Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a struggling screenwriter who makes a living teaching screenwriting a New York university. His calls to his agents go unanswered, or when they are answered he’s given a form of the run around. At the university his professional life is also in shambles, with a younger generation of students failing to be grasped by his repetitive form of writing critique. Making matters worse, his health is leaving much to be desired and his efforts to live healthier are futile. Schmerz is heading towards a fall, and I won’t dare spoil how it comes about.
Finally, the wiener-dog comes into the possession of an elderly woman known simply as Nana (Ellen Burstyn). She has bestowed the name Cancer upon the dog, and grumpily bides her time in her residence. Nana is visited by her granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet), who has come seeking money from her grandmother to help fund her artist boyfriend Fantasy’s (Michael James Shaw) next project. There’s a distance between these two generations, it’s cold and quiet in its confrontational overtones. Once again, we have broken people and the grim shadow mortality hanging over everything that happens on the screen.
For those faint of heart, the ending of Wiener-Dog is truly questionable in its taste, which may be the reason I liked it so much. That being said, those with small dogs of their own might want to keep hands places firmly over their eyes during the film’s penultimate shot, one that lingers on the gruesome scene for an incredibly long period of time. While it may seem to many to be an issue of overkill, this final tragic moment is the culmination of everything that preceded it. It’s not a moment that is found is trashy horror films, where an animal is killed in a moment of cheap emotional exploitation. For a film that grapples with mortality, Weiner-Dog’s conclusion is the coup de grace where the adorable animal is granted its own chance at immortality, something that has eluded all of her prior owners.
All is not as grim as I may make it appear, Solondz’s film is overflowing with some really dark humor. In an incredible supporting performance, Julie Delpy contends for the mother with the world’s worst wording. Due to the nature of the film it’s unlikely that she’ll be in any awards contention, though I think that would be a grave oversight. Most of all, Wiener-Dog features an absolutely hilarious and insane intermission segment featuring the original song “The Ballad of the Wiener-Dog” and is without a doubt the lightest moment in the movie. For a film that is so determined to make its viewers uncomfortable in one way or another, Wiener-Dog is astoundingly entertaining while doing it.
All taste is subjective and I strongly believe that reaction to Wiener-Dog will vary upon those lines. Todd Solondz is grappling with some strong themes in the film and his nature towards provoking the viewer with ugly and unsettling images and story beats is somewhat eased over by the gorgeous cinematography by Edward Lachman. The fact remains that the films of Todd Solondz and Wiener-Dog in particular isn’t out to give you a passable little diversion at the picture show. Oh no, he’s going to poke and prod you repeatedly, make you laugh and then make you squirm in your seat. When it’s all said and done, the end credits rolling up the screen, you might just have a moment of some realization – or you’re just repulsed. Hell, that’s just life.
- Overall Score
The latest film from Todd Solondz, Wiener-Dog elegantly pushes the envelope of taste in four stories that explore fractured relationships and understanding of mortality.