A Wiener Dog rises in the new Todd Solondz anthology feature of the same name. Slightly breaking away from dark suburbia this release is much more tame than his previous films. At the end of something like Welcome to the Dollhouse or Palindromes, I have the urge to shower and never trust anyone in my neighborhood. The four vignettes containing the titular dog have either nasty or depressing characters but the stories themselves are not as heartbreakingly nihilistic as I’ve come to expect from Solondz. There’s none of the shock value of all the peril involving minors and only one outlandish scenario. It’s very grounded and to an extent boring aside from the droopy eyed companion.
The first two stories are the strongest. The film opens with Wiener Dog being adopted by an unhappy husband and wife (played by Tracy Letts and Julie Delphy) for their son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) who is recovering from a recent illness. The boy and the dog’s bond is so sweet in contrast to the how much the parent despise it. The theme of removing productive rights and a mother’s intuition which is quite prevalent in Palindromes is revived intermittently here where in a succession of dour scenes, the mother tries to rationalize to her son why Wiener Dog must be fixed. It’s a bizarre take on the hyperbolic rabbit holes a parent goes through to mask the truth to “protect” a child’s innocence but in this case making it worse. A fit of prolonged diarrhea by Wiener Dog produced by an unsupervised day of fun with Remi leads the pup into the next story with Solondz favorite character, Dawn Weiner, no longer dead and now played by Greta Gerwig who put on glasses to be uglied up for the role. Paired with her old Dollhouse flame Brandon (now Kieran Culkin) they embark on a roadtrip with tinges of sadness as they pick up an aimless mariachi trio who find America a hallow and lonely country that Solondz is always trying to convey. Gerwig does justice for the beloved character as she stares longing at the lost soul of a boy to which she idolizes. She’s not as quirky or bratty as her twelve year old self but it’s a believable trajectory for the character. This segment is the perfect slice of life with Dawn which Solondz fans will be pleased with that I would have preferred to see as the entire film.
I was disappointed that after this vignette that the transitioning device of following Wiener to his new home is dropped and instead suddenly appears on the desk of Danny DeVito who is a run down film professor trying to get his hacky screenplay read by film execs. Grinding to a halt but branching out to the big city, Solondz takes jabs at the phoniness of the industry and pretentiousness of film school, none that feel original ideas. Most of this story is spent watching DeVito talk on the phone which wasn’t that engaging even with Ari Graynor on the other end. It’s conclusion is the high concept, third act twist that Solondz is great at and is a satisfying use of Wiener in the story. The dog’s last owner is cranky grandma (Ellen Burstyn) who is visited by her granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) asking for a large sum of money. Even though Burstyn excels as Bad Grandma, the short is just uncomfortable silences as despicable people sit in their awkwardness. There’s not even much to say as it story slowly meanders towards Wiener’s demise that is literal overkill.
This is a movie that’s got one foot out of the water as Solondz tries to break away of his usual patterns of storytelling. There’s a more range of characters first in age as each vignette the main protagonist gets progressively older and it’s not all middle class with the book ending stories presenting more shallow upper class families but still quite white. Each story had the dark overtones and unconventional humor that make his films so charming but wasn’t as emotionally impactful as his previous work. He plays it safe, not pushing any boundaries or wowing me with memorable characters. Watching the dog itself is delightful and his presence is felt throughout. It’s a movie about life, death and the different trajectories one’s choices can lead them. This film offers an alternate path for Dawn who I welcome back to the big screen. Wiener-Dog is Solondz light and maybe a good way to ease people into exploring his older work. It’s interesting to see some big names in this one that make it more appealing to an unfamiliar audience but the rawness of his 90’s films still reigns supreme.