When I saw Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Doll House, Palindromes) had a new movie out, I knew I had to see it. But I had to be ready—in the right state of mind—for the darkness, awkwardness, and sadness a Solondz movie entails. So, I waited till I was couch-bound, sick, and loopy from cold medicine.
Anyway, Wiener-Dog. It’s an homage of sorts to Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar: you know, that horribly depressing and stark French art film where the poor mule has all the different cruel owners. It’s the same idea with Wiener-Dog, except it’s with, yeah, a wiener dog instead of a mule.
The female wiener dog, our hero and protagonist, goes through a number of different owners. Each one gives her a new name. Her names include Cancer, Dootie, and Wiener Dog. With each different owner, we get a different vignette, and we see our hero the Dachshund go from a wealthy suburban family’s kid (Keaton Nigel Cooke) to an awkward do-gooder Veterinary Assistant (Greta Gerwig) to a developmentally disabled husband and wife (Connor Long and Bridget Brown) to a failure of a film professor (Danny DeVito) to a bitter elderly woman (Ellen Burstyn). Each owner is too dysfunctional in their own special way to care for and keep the poor wiener dog, and in every vignette, human hangups prevent our hero from ever enjoying a stable home.
Wiener-Dog has its hilarious moments as well as its heart wrenching, the world-is-a-cruel-horrid-place moments. It’s definitely a lot funnier than Au hasard Balthazar, but then again so is The Virgin Spring. It also might be even sadder, in its own weird, deadpan way. There’s something so perfect about the wiener dog. In spirit, it seems far and beyond superior to the humans that determine its life. If you have a dog, you’ll be hugging, clasping, and saying, ‘I’d never ever treat you that way’ to it after seeing Wiener- Dog. Affective, the film is, with Solondz’s signature dark humor keeping the sadness in check.
The scene where Greta Gerwig rescues the dog right before it’s about to be put to sleep at the vet’s is pure teary triumph.
The scene where the dog is fed a granola bar by a kid who doesn’t know any better is familiar, disastrous, and cringe-inducing.
Overall, the movie is loaded–it’s rich–with so many different elements. It philosophically posits the question, What are dogs in human lives even for? It lampoons, if not indicts, film school and doctrinal screenwriting approaches. Danny DeVito plays one sad sack. I loved the scene where his students tear him apart behind his back, ridiculing his tastes and achievements. There’s an awfully tender love story between Greta Gerwig, the dog’s potential best owner, and Kieran Culkin. There’s a hilarious performance by Michael Shaw as a controversial New York artist whose first name is Fantasy.
It’s a simple story, yet very complex in the emotions it plumbs the depths of.
I recommend it. It’s an experience.