This one has been in festivals and arthouses around the world, to some critical acclaim. Forget what you’ve heard, and don’t be swayed by the clever poster design (if you’ve seen two placed next to each other on the subway, cute, right?), “Wiener-Dog” is an exercise in negativity, masked, if the director’s previous works are a guideline, as a black comedy with existential questions thrown up, but poorly answered.
Read on knowing there are spoilers, but buy a ticket knowing the same may happen to your evening.
Two big issues we’ll get out of the way quickly: the titular dog is very cute, and yes, that character you meet 15 minutes in is the Dawn Wiener, whom all of a sudden looks like a different person. For those of you not familiar with Todd Solondz’s previous, complicated, work, before the somewhat controversial “Happiness” in 1998 came 1995’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse”. There we met bullied, occasionally sassy, nonconformist Dawn Wiener, played by 13 year old Heather Matarazzo (now 33 and still busy acting), the hero/anti-hero teen protagonist of that much better film. The mean kids called her Wiener-Dog. So why is the adult Dawn popping up here, now played by Greta Gerwig (also 33, so this isn’t a young Han Solo casting thing) as if she is sleepwalking around in a nerd tribute costume? Simply because her name is Wiener? Which came first in concept, the chicken or the dog? And deep fans of the director’s films who remember the character’s trajectory will be puzzled: ,huh? How can Dawn be here if…?
Dawn Wiener, you deserve better
Despite Dawn’s presence, complete with silly character styling, “Wiener-Dog” is not a sequel to “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” It follows the story of a lovely little dachshund who is passed between various owners who progress in age. Let me correct: if it was the story of the dog – her life as a pup, her unfortunate digestion issues, her opinions on FSM (female spaying mutilation), that’s a movie that would have kept my interest. Unfortunately here we only learn about the humans, the mostly horrible, mostly boring humans and snapshots of their badly directed, unbelievably scripted lives, shown in anthology form. Wiener-Dog goes from home to home in a series of handovers ranging from the lacking in motivation to the simply unexplained. The dog’s series of companions include a cancer child living with two adults (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy) who are not for a minute believable as his or anyone’s parents; the aforementioned Dawn Weiner, who inexplicably gives away what sparked the initial bond between her and her new boyfriend (a good, too cool for school Kieran Culkin) after an underwritten interlude with his brother; a lonely film school professor (Danny DeVito) surrounded by assholes and stereotypes; and an offputting terminally ill woman who receives a tense visit from her druggie mooch of a granddaughter (Zosia Mamet, giving the other good performance here).
Is this making you want to jump onboard the “Wiener-Dog” train? Well, before you do, consider a distractingly bad greenscreen effect scene, lazy editing, constant talk about mortality that is as nuanced as a terror attack, an out of place character that is a combination of Marcellus Wallace and “Hollywood” from the Mannequin movies, more fecal matter than anyone ever needs to see (my needs on the subject are fairly low, your mileage may vary); an intermission, boldly labeled as such, that solves the tricky riddle of plot continuity and is nowhere near as charming as Solondz thinks it is; and, oh yeah, — stop now if you’re still buying that ticket and don’t want to know– ready…? he kills the dog.
Wiener-Dog and Life
Don’t think for a second that that particular unpleasant event would ultimately put me off of a better film. I am of the “Old Yeller” generation, we grew up tough, and while potentially a manipulative touch, canine companions have been put into peril to great effect in better films. Is little Wiener-Dog meant to be our avatar, looking into these sad lives? Are we cheering for those that love her? No, she is a dog who comes across as the only positive and charming (and later, as disinterested in her humans as we) part of a movie that presents Big Questions to people from whom we don’t have any reason in which to invest. “Happiness” managed to make depraved characters (Dylan Baker’s Bill and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Allen) almost – almost a smidge – sympathetic (let’s all take a moment to pour one out for our lost homie, PSH. The great man brought his characters to life in ways that made us care) and had a few chuckles and a better, more committed cast. Dark comedies need to strike a tricky balance, but by definition, a bit of comedy is essential, even if it comes against our better audience judgement, it is a necessary counterbalance to the dark. Uncomfortable means nothing if we never for a moment felt comfortable in this world.
What does the intelligent, capable Solondz want from us? Uncomfortable watching, yep, seems to be his groove. Unusual looks at society and thus ourselves, tick. Thought-provoking, yes – in case our thoughts weren’t having spitballs lobbed at them, at one point we are given a visitation of death-angels to ponder upon. Do you want to bum us out, Solondz, to make us view these simultaneous worlds from a happier view 18 inches off of the ground? Sorry, I, for one, couldn’t stop thinking about that trail of shit. And that, dear viewer, is literal.
photo credits: Mongrel Media