D: Todd Solondz / 88m
Cast: Julie Delpy, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Tracy Letts, Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Connor Long, Bridget Brown, Danny DeVito, Sharon Washington, Ellen Burstyn, Zosia Mamet, Michael James Shaw
A portmanteau of stories connected by the titular animal, Wiener-Dog is the kind of quirky, off-kilter indie movie that attracts audiences attuned to quirky, off-kilter indie movies. That’s to say there’s a certain audience out there for it, and it’s a movie that does its best to be quirky and off-kilter, but as with most portmanteau movies – indie-based or otherwise – some stories work and others don’t. And this won’t help it reach a wider audience. Making a quirky, off-kilter indie movie isn’t a bad idea, but in order for it to avoid being stuck in a niche market, it really needs to be thought through in better fashion than writer/director Todd Solondz has done here.
We first meet wiener-dog as he’s taken to a shelter. Why he’s taken there we never find out – it probably doesn’t matter, but if it does, Solondz isn’t looking to give the viewer any clues – but it’s not long before he’s given a home by Danny (Letts) as a surprise gift for his young son, Remi (Cooke). Remi’s mother, Dina (Delpy), isn’t too happy though about having a dog in the house, and she’s keen to make it clear that the dog is Remi’s responsibility alone. Remi has recently survived a brush with cancer, and is only too happy to have a dog to look after. But an unfortunate occurrence involving the dog and a granola bar leads to wiener-dog being taken back to the shelter.
Ear-marked to be put down, wiener-dog is saved at the last minute by veterinary nurse, Dawn (Gerwig). She takes the dog home with her and christens her Doody. At a local store she runs into Brandon (Culkin), who she knew in high school. He’s going on a trip to visit his brother, Tommy (Long) and his wife, April (Brown), and he invites Dawn along. With nothing better to do, she accepts. When they get to Tommy’s house, Dawn learns that he and April both have Downs Syndrome. When it’s time to leave, Dawn makes a gift of Doody to the couple.
We next see Doody with screenwriting professor Dave Schmerz (DeVito). Dave is trying to get his own screenplay produced, but his agent hasn’t even read it, and Dave is getting more and more depressed about it as a result. He’s lost his enthusiasm for teaching, and in turn has lost the respect of his students. Even when he’s assigned a new agent who tells him she may have a deal with Dreamworks set up for him, Dave’s newfound happiness is undermined by news that his students have complained about him. Angry and upset by this, Dave assembles a bomb, attaches it to Doody, and sends her into the college where he works.
Our final encounter with the dog is when she’s owned by Nana (Burstyn) and is called Cancer. Nana lives with her caregiver and appears miserable and grumpy. She receives a visit from her granddaughter, Zoe (Mamet), and her current boyfriend, Fantasy (Shaw), a performance artist she thinks is cheating on her. The visit is cut short before Nana can give any practical advice, and afterwards she has goes outside and has a dream where younger versions of herself endlessly repeat how better her life would have been if she’d been nicer to people, less critical of them etc.
There’s one last scene involving wiener-dog in animatronic form, but that’s basically it, a collection of four stories where the dog is largely coincidental to the tales being told, and the characters – as per Solondz’ usual penchant – are disillusioned, emotionally stunted, socially awkward lost souls who are unable to connect to others on any meaningful level. Now, there’s aways room for this kind of movie making, and in the past Solondz has been an accomplished purveyor of tales about such people. He’s pretty much built his career on the back of them, and Happiness (1998) is a superb example of what he can do when the muse takes him. But Wiener-Dog is neither as sharp as that movie, or as engaging. There’s Solondz’ trademark waspish humour, but unfortunately, it’s also not as acute as it needs to be.
The first tale is possibly the most satisfactory, with Remi’s persistent questioning of his mother leading to some of the most inappropriate parenting seen on screen for a while. Dina doesn’t do much to reassure Remi; instead she offers worst-case scenarios and semi-pious examples of times went horribly wrong for want of the right thing being done. It’s reassurance by scare tactics, and while Solondz is aiming for very black humour in these moments, the awfulness of Dina’s approach is just that: awful. Delpy is a superb actress, and she handles the dialogue well, but even she can’t find the fine line that stops emotional support from becoming emotional abuse.
The story involving Dawn and Brandon – characters reunited from Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) – runs out of ideas very quickly, and Solondz doesn’t have anything to offer in terms of the characters or their lives, other than that Dawn and Brandon both exist in the kind of emotional bubbles that are difficult for others to break through, and partly because the two of them aren’t especially aware that that’s the kind of lives they lead. Dave’s tale is flat and uninvolving, a tired story about a tired man that you don’t spend enough time with to really care about. DeVito is often a better dramatic actor than he’s given credit for, but here he just doesn’t have the material to work with. But spare a thought for Burstyn, who has even less to work with, and who is left to yield the floor to Mamet and her character’s own worries. The focus isn’t on Nana enough for the dream visitations of her younger self to have any relevance, and once they occur her tale is effectively over, leaving the viewer to wonder why the story was included in the first place.
The cast do their best, but Solondz maintains a dreary, desultory tone throughout, aiming perhaps for slice of life tales that are meant to be affecting and saying something about modern day ennui, but instead, giving the viewer brief character sketches that say little beyond the obvious, and which lack the necessary depth to make these characters sympathetic or intriguing. It’s hard to care about any of them, and in the end, Solondz reveals just how little he cares about them, or the dog, as he pulls the rug out from under the audience with a scene that’s so gratuitous and unnecessary that you feel like slapping him in the face for being so arbitrary and cruel.
Rating: 4/10 – with past glories fading away with every passing minute, Wiener-Dog is not the movie to sound hurrahs for Solondz’ return to movie making after five years away; as it squanders every opportunity to be interesting or appealing, the movie gets bogged down by its attempts to say something about the lives of the disconnected, and in doing so – and with an irony that only highlights Solondz’ clumsy approach to his own material – keeps its characters at a safe distance from the audience as well.