Wiener-Dog is a witty, bitter pill by Todd Solondz


Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens Aug. 27
3½ out of 5

To say that Todd Solondz is an acquired taste is an understatement. Few American filmmakers are as pessimistic and yet as willing to explore the darkest corners of the soul.

Solondz is not here to please audiences, but to challenge them. Oh, you want examples? All right.

• The most sympathetic character in his 1998 film Happiness is a pervert of the worst kind.

• Solondz makes a sequel to his most popular film without any of the actors from the original.

• He kills off a likeable creation seemingly as an afterthought.

Yup, Solondz is a hard filmmaker to like.

Wiener-Dog is as bitter as his previous work but much more focused. There isn’t anything special about the pooch in question, outside tying together four profoundly unhappy stories of people deluding themselves into believing there’s a purpose to their lives.

STORY 1: A young cancer survivor adopts the dog, much to the chagrin of his parents (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy), who hate each other with passion. Far from bringing the family together, the canine becomes a source of more friction and used as a prop for the most horrifying life lessons: the spaying process is treated by Delpy as a wonderful opportunity to teach the kid about, um, rape.

STORY 2: Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig) reemerges 20 years after Welcome to the Dollhouse as a veterinary nurse with low self-esteem. Dawn falls for the wiener-dog and becomes smitten with a loser classmate (Kieran Culkin). The girl drops everything to join him on a road trip, overlooking the many red flags surrounding her crush, including the world’s saddest mariachi band.

STORY 3: A sad-sack scriptwriting teacher (Danny DeVito) is still hoping for his big break, fully aware he’s a walking joke in campus. The dachshund is not as involved, although delivers one hell of a punchline.

STORY 4: Finally, a sour retiree (Ellen Burstyn, tremendous) gets hold of the mutt. As she mulls her many regrets, she is visited by her bohemian granddaughter (Zosia Mamet, Girls), who needs cash to support her artist boyfriend. The senior sees straight through her platitudes, but lets her spin her utterly hipster yarn.

In Todd Solondz’ world, despair is mankind’s natural state. The relentless gloom is only tolerable because it’s delivered with such wit. Delpy and Burstyn are gifted with horrifying monologues, dark, mean-spirited and hysterical. Life doesn’t work out as expected for any of the characters in Wiener-Dog, and their efforts to course-correct or sublimate their shortcomings are a bit pathetic (and completely relatable).

While every story is razor-sharp, the Danny DeVito segment is particularly poignant in its depiction of film schools’ toxic environment: nobody learns anything, everybody thinks they’re better than everyone else, and everyone is oblivious to the fact their education is basically a money-grab. In Solondz’ mind, film schools are to blame for cookie-cutter storytelling.

Nobody but sociopaths could possibly like the ending, but one can appreciate Solondz’ main message: life is arbitrary, and all you can count on is on people putting their own interests before anyone else’s.
Also, good luck getting “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog” out of your head.