Director Todd Solondz has a really sick sense of humor. In 2014, he must have laughed heartily when The Hollywood Reporter described his next film as “several stories featuring people who find their life inspired or changed by one particular dachshund, who seems to be spreading comfort and joy.” The article doesn’t make clear whether or not Solondz was the one who supplied that synopsis, but I like to imagine a ghoulish grin spreading across his face when he read it. There’s very little comfort to be had in Wiener-Dog, the quasi-sequel to Solondz’s breakout debut film Welcome to the Dollhouse, and almost no joy at all. There are plenty of laughs, though, in the quiet, sardonic chuckle variety.
Solondz is noted for exploring the blackest of comedy through his suburbanite characters, and Wiener-Dog is no exception. The Hollywood Reporter was right in one aspect – the picture consists of four separate vignettes, all linked by a stoic, little lady dachshund who is known by her various temporary owners as Wiener-Dog, Doody, and Cancer. If there is a theme shaping up for the year 2016 in filmmaking, it seems to be cruelty to animals, particularly dogs. The depiction of the wry and stomach-churning fate of little Wiener-Dog/Doody/Cancer makes the dog abuse in The Lobster seem easy to take by comparison. The penultimate scene of Wiener-Dog is a gob-smacking end to a movie that’s one-quarter brilliant, one-quarter inspired, and one-half just above what you might find at a student film festival.
Maybe that last description is exactly what Solondz was going for, considering the focus of the most bitingly funny and poignant segment of Wiener-Dog.
Danny DeVito plays Dave Schmerz, a washed-up screenwriter with one hit movie trying to get another into production, while teaching at a film school in New York City just to survive. Schmerz’s mantra for good storytelling is “to ask yourself ‘What if…?’, ‘Then what?’” This is mocked by his students both behind his back and right to his face. A successful former alumnus even delivers a speech that denigrates the entire film school model, capping it off with shaming Schmerz in front of the entire student body. It’s an accident, the alum didn’t know the screenwriter was still teaching, but it’s a scene that rings particularly true for me. I’m the proud owner of one of the most useless college degrees on the planet – RTVF, or Radio, Television, and Film.
This segment of the film is a little movie-within-a-movie that’s about movies, and it’s an absolute gem. Schmerz effortlessly scans as the Solondz surrogate. The writer-director gets to talk to himself through his character about everything that he loathes in the industry where he’s spent two decades toiling. In one scene, Schmerz’s boss informs him that his students have been complaining about his negativity and that if he doesn’t make a concerted effort to be more engaged in his day job, the school will have to let him go. In response, Schmerz delivers a soliloquy about plumbing the depths of human suffering for art while compromising his instincts for success. DeVito absolutely nails it. “I wanted people to like it though,” he says, “so I added shtick.”
It’s a peculiar quirk of Wiener-Dog that the most effective bit of the movie has the least to do with the titular character. The canine only comes into play in Schmerz’s story when he gives up all hope and uses the dog in a twisted attempt at revenge against those who have belittled him. Immediately preceding Schmerz, there’s a seemingly non-sequitur break in the action. Title cards announcing “Intermission” and “Refreshments are available in the Lobby!” are intercut with shots of Wiener-Dog roaming the American countryside set to The Ballad of Wiener-Dog, a Riders in the Sky-style country tune penned by famed composer Marc Shaiman.
The first section of the film, wherein a father adopts the dog because he thinks training it will be a good experience for his son, is basically inert. The son, Remi, is on the mend after battling cancer, and his ill-advised decision to feed the dog a few granola bars leads to a disgusting bout of diarrhea that Solondz delights in photographing. The camera pans excruciatingly slowly down a street, detailing the puddles of poop the dog has left behind as beautiful, stringed music swells on the soundtrack.
This moment, and the graphically depicted fate of little Wiener-Dog, would have benefitted greatly from someone telling Solondz that maybe enough was enough. He lingers on these two scenes in a way that makes his dark sense of humor seem more childish than insightful.
The second story, where we are reintroduced to Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse, is the warmest of the film. Dawn is a veterinary technician who rescues Wiener-Dog from being put down when she’s brought to the pet hospital by Remi’s father. Dawn is still as sweet and innocent, if a little dim, as the eleven-year-old version we saw in the earlier movie. She names the rescued dachshund Doody, after toying with the name Howdy Doody. This prompts a few characters to respond, “Doody? You mean, like…shit?”
Dawn is portrayed by Greta Gerwig, and the actress is quiet and contemplative in a way that perfectly evokes Heather Matarazzo’s performance in Dollhouse. During her bit in the film, she hooks up with Brandon, the boy who tormented her in seventh grade. Kieran Culkin takes on the role in this film from actor Brendan Sexton III in Welcome to the Dollhouse. The scene where they initially recognize each other after years apart is Solondz at his awkward best. After a few minutes of talking, Dawn suggests they exchange email addresses so they can catch up. “But, that’s what we just did,” Brandon says.
Together the unlikely pair drive to Ohio, where Brandon delivers some sad news to Tommy and April, his brother and sister-in-law, respectively. Tommy and April both have Down Syndrome, and they give Wiener-Dog that emotional warmth I mentioned earlier. They are clearly the happiest people in the film. Perhaps this is Solondz’s cynical way of saying the only path to a happy life is to have an intellectual disability, so you can’t think too deeply about your own existence.
The last episode of the movie is a short segment about an old woman whose granddaughter is constantly asking for money. Although the impeccable Ellen Burstyn plays Nana with an acerbic curtness – she’s the one who names the dog Cancer – this is the part of Wiener-Dog that feels the most like a student short film. Mostly that’s because this section of the movie feels completely disconnected from the rest of Wiener-Dog. For one thing, we never learn how the little dachshund winds up with Nana. The characters in this bit of the story all feel one dimensional in a way the others don’t. Each one is a type, not a fully formed person.
Nana’s granddaughter, Zoe, pays a visit with her boyfriend, Fantasy, in tow. He’s an artist whose big break is just around the corner – all he needs is ten thousand dollars to fund his next exhibit. Wiener-Dog here traffics in some racial stereotypes, since Fantasy is a muscular black man who leers at two different white women during their visit. Zoe even breaks down in front of Nana while Fantasy takes Cancer for a walk, confessing that she needs the money for his art, but that she’s afraid he’s unfaithful. It’s played for uncomfortable laughs, but only succeeded in making me wonder what point Solondz was trying to make.
Through all the sick and angry humor, Wiener-Dog is strangely endearing. It examines the brokenness of humanity by spending time with some pretty grim and broken people. The destiny of the titular character closes the movie on the least hopeful note imaginable. The end of Wiener-Dog left me with the taste of bitter sarcasm in my mouth. But the fleeting moments of optimism made me enjoy Wiener-Dog almost in spite of itself.
Why it got 3 stars:
- Wiener-Dog is strangely entertaining despite it wallowing in its own cynicism.
- Structurally, the movie feels a bit flimsy, as it's essentially an anthology. Only two out of the four stories really held my interest for their duration. The story about Dave Schmerz, the washed up scriptwriter-turned-film-school-teacher, is worth the price of admission alone, though.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- My editor asked me if the fact that Greta Gerwig looks so different from Heather Matarazzo, the original Dawn Wiener, took away from the movie at all. It absolutely doesn't. Solondz adds little touches like giving Gerwig the exact same glasses and the same hair tie as Matarazzo in Dollhouse that they are unmistakably the same character. Gerwig's performance takes care of the rest. Her mannerisms and speech capture the essence of Matarazzo's performance from the earlier film, without being just an impression, that you never question her as being Dawn for a moment.
- Some of the best gags from the Schmerz story line are little throw away moments. He has a framed poster on his wall of what is presumably his one claim to fame. The title is simply Dave Schmerz's Apricots!