Sundance Film Review: ‘Wiener-Dog’

Sundance 2016 Feature and Documentary Premieres
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

A hapless Dachshund witnesses the spectrum of human unhappiness in this sly, stimulating provocation from Todd Solondz.

The proverbial dog has its day — a day of misfortune, indigestion and possible death, but a day nonetheless — in “Wiener-Dog,” the eighth and perhaps most blithely eccentric feature to date from Todd Solondz. A wandering short story compendium, bound by deadpan musings on mortality and the presence of one winsome Dachshund, this elegantly wrought oddity appears at the halfway mark to be heading into uncharacteristically hopeful territory for Solondz — until a toe-tapping intermission marks a reassuring plunge into abject despair. Students of the filmmaker’s exactingly composed mise-en-thropy will revel in the new pic’s freezing wit, jaundiced societal observation and inventive star casting, feeling the human ache in its glassy delivery. The unconverted will remain bemusedly in their camp, though all should agree that the eponymous pooch is now an uncontested winner in the “most lovable Todd Solondz character” sweepstakes.

It takes a director with casual confidence in his brand, not to mention cheerful indifference to his critics, to make a lovingly sustained tracking shot of canine diarrhea — scored to Debussy’s “Clair de lune,” no less — a key setpiece of his latest film. So it is in “Wiener-Dog,” the various melancholy chapters of which find a peculiar dignity in rejection: social, scatological or otherwise. Not that Solondz has ever been anything so simple as a champion of the underdog. Equal reserves of contempt and even anger are directed here at the privileged and the pathetic alike, while the third of the film’s four principal narratives (starring Danny DeVito as a screenwriter and film school professor at the end of his already frayed rope) offers a scalding satirical attack on the independent film industry that keeps Solondz’s prickly films alive. This “Wiener-Dog” isn’t loath to bite the hand that feeds it.

This is stronger, saltier stuff than Solondz’s last feature, 2011’s low-energy loser portrait “Dark Horse,” though that film’s unlikely streak of sentimentalism hasn’t been entirely erased: A couple of innocent parties are exempt from the psychological slaughter here, most notably a blissfully married couple with Down’s Syndrome. Among those less gently treated, Solondz’s first target is his easiest: The tactless, modishly self-absorbed parents (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts) of sensitive nine-year-old cancer survivor Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), who buy him the sausage-bodied pup only to treat her as a walking (or waddling) case study for needlessly cruel lessons in life, death and sterilization. (Delpy is gifted with a spectacularly grotesque monologue in which her justification for spaying Wiener-Dog culminates in tall tales of dog-rape and venereal disease.)

Remi’s loyal devotion isn’t enough to secure the pet’s place in his parents’ spartan yoga-mat household, however. Thus begins a warped spin on such episodic animal odysseys as “Benji” or “The Incredible Journey,” as Wiener-Dog (whose subsequent re-christenings are among the pic’s best throwaway gags) passes through the mostly miserable lives of a range of owners, including a lovelorn veterinary nurse (Greta Gerwig), the aforementioned disabled couple (Connor Long and Bridget Brown), De Vito’s flailing academic and an embittered crone (an astonishing Ellen Burstyn) who hides her mourning for an misspent life behind surly silence and wall-like sunglasses.

Each of their mini-narratives plays out in the pause-heavy mode of highly mannered mundanity that will feel entirely natural to Solondz acolytes — and, it seems, to the actors, most of whom tackle the director’s customarily arch dialogue with brusque aplomb. Delpy, in particular, was born to deliver his harshest words, though it’s Burstyn — using very few at all, her set face shifting and falling as the script lends reasoning to her froideur — whom viewers might find themselves unable to shake. Some episodes in Solondz’s omnibus are, by subtle degrees, more absurd than others; Burstyn’s resembles a halting nightmare within a dream, as the loveless grandmother she plays is confronted with the ghosts of a potentially infinite array of unlived lives.

While the stories don’t seem that strenuously linked, those in the first half hinge on compromised notions of survival and recovery, with personal collapse and defeat coming to the fore in the second. It’s a deceptively simple rise-and-fall structure, bisected by a prankish mid-film intermission — scored to an infectiously folksy original ditty, “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog,” by “South Park” composer Marc Shaiman. (The music is a delight throughout: At several points in the film, The Cardigans’ Nina Persson croons about the most wistful refrain one could imagine on the subject of dog excrement.) Such whimsy is welcome; not all Solondz’s provocations aim to sting. Indeed, there’s more workaday beauty here than we’ve seen in Solondz’s films in some time: “Wiener-Dog” reunites him with Todd Haynes’s favored cinematographer Edward Lachman, here working with less sallow colors and a more refined compositional sensibility than those he favored in 2009’s visually severe “Life During Wartime.”

Fans of Solondz’s 1995 breakthrough feature “Welcome to the Dollhouse” will note that Gerwig’s character, named Dawn Wiener, is a grown-up incarnation of that film’s gawky adolescent heroine, played then by Heather Matarazzo. (As it happens, in a neat bit of external bookending, “Wiener-Dog” is Solondz’s first film since “Dollhouse” to premiere at Sundance.) As well as making “Wiener-Dog” a skew-whiff sequel of sorts to previous work — a trick Solondz previously pulled with “Happiness” follow-up “Life During Wartime” — the connection lends implied context to characters we know less intimately. The initial pang of disappointment we feel upon learning that young Dawn’s life never really took shape may as well be shared with the ensemble: No one in “Wiener-Dog” appears to have been granted the life they planned, least of all the luckless mutt herself.

Sundance Film Review: 'Wiener-Dog'

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 22, 2016. Running time: 87 MIN.

Production

An Annapurna Pictures presentation of a Killer Films production. Produced by Megan Ellison, Christine Vachon. Executive producer, David Hinojosa. Co-producers, David Distenfeld, Jillian Longnecker, Derrick Tseng.

Crew

Directed, written by Todd Solondz. Camera (color, HD), Edward Lachman; editor, Kevin Messman; music, Nathan Larson, James Lavino; music supervisor, Michael Hall; production designer, Akin McKenzie; art director, Max Wixom; set decorator, Daniel R. Kersting; costume designer, Amela Baksic; sound (Dolby Digital), Stuart Deutsch; supervising sound editor, Rich Bologna; re-recording mixers, John Moros, Bologna; visual effects supervisor, David Isyomin; visual effects, & Company, Inc.; assistant directors, Kit Bland, Ryan A. Dearth; casting, Jessica Daniels.

With

Keaton Nigel Cooke, Tracy Letts, Julie Delpy, Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Connor Long, Bridget Brown, Danny DeVito, Sharon Washington, Ellen Burstyn, Marcella Lowery, Zosia Mamet, Michael Shaw, Melo Ludwig.

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  1. # Julie says:

    This is the worse movie ever I seen , also they have used Mohamed name referring to the dog .
    Such a idiots whomever done this ugly movie

  2. Bob Kraut says:

    Just saw this film. This is Todd’s best film by far. The reviews in this comment section: I respect them, but I feel they are written without life experience. The dog in this movie was not the star. Human being-ness is the star. The Wiener Dog is just a prop. Whether it lives, dies, gets diarrhea, etc., one misses the point unless you see the dog as just a dog, throughout the film. That it is not Benji, Rin Tin Tin, Old Yeller, or even Beethoven… this is a huge theme. Humans inject human emotions, human meaning into pets. Dogs and humans see the world in completely different ways. And maybe, dogs are better off for that.

    Notice the four stories in the film Wiener Dog are sequential, when it comes to life stages. Child. College Age. Career. End Of life. Most of you reviewers are at College Age, and you wont understand this film for another few years.

    In Wiener Dog, the life of everyone’s character is full of sadness at all stages – tiny moments of hope. We continually strive and react to our efforts to get that golden ring, that happiness. This is our drive as human beings. We are never fully successful. And when we die, it doesnt matter. This isnt the reality for everyone, but it’s close.

    I commend Todd Solondz for making an amazing work of art speaking to existentialism. I say this not as an intellectual film snob. Im just a human being with some self awareness.

    PS. I love life. And I dont care how inconsequential my life is. I will live and live and live until I die. Be well everyone who reads this.

  3. eric says:

    I really liked this movie, as I have all of Solondz’ movies. It’s probably not a movie that most will enjoy, but if you know and enjoyed his previous efforts, you will probably want to see this more than once. Good write up.

  4. KELLY HUDSON says:

    I saw this movie last evening. I kept waiting for it to get better. I found it quirky. I kept hoping it would kick in to something more. At the end of our viewing the director was there. There were a few folks there that were fans. Some folks got up and left at the tragic ending. Some said negative things to the press who were there as well. I kept thinking to myself I guess I am just not artsy. While I enjoyed the opportunity to be part of our Film Society, I am not sure I got it. The Q&A didn’t help much as Solondz had bizarre replies. Some of his ‘fan’s just loved his responses. I did learn four dogs played the 1. All ‘show dogs’ and according to the director they are ‘dumb’.

  5. Sei Laufen says:

    How do you review a film that has some great performances (like DeVito, Gerwig and Burstyn), yet leaves the viewer feeling they have completely wasted their time? It has some funny moments, but in the end, the film is just an utter waste. The reaction of the viewers speaks louder than any comments I could make. A third of the audience had left by the end of the film, and another third left during the Q&A, which hardly ever happens at Sundance. Normally, I wouldn’t comment, but I feel obligated to warn other potential viewers.

  6. kaimalino says:

    This is the most generous and polite review possible for what is very possibly the worst film I have ever seen. I make a point of not writing negative reviews for anything–people are real, and I don’t want to hurt feelings and all. But in this case, it simply must be said as a public service to help others better use the 87 minutes of life I lost to this movie. This is an unhappily told tale of various flavors of unhappiness. I saw it at Sundance, and the audience was filled with nervous tittering during scenes of an inept mother telling her cancer-survivor son that having his new dachshund spayed was no big deal, but death was quite possible, but for the best because her own childhood dog had been brutally raped and the pregnancy killed her, so spaying was better, now don’t you feel better? Her son, and most of the audience, was wide-eyed and uncomfortable, waiting for some reason for this pointlessly harsh talk. The point never comes. Every story was increasingly hopeless, with zero resolution until finally, (spoiler alert, but you should expect at least part of this in any dog movie) we witness the dog run into the street and get run over not just one, but THREE times while we stare at its crushed corpse. Lest you think my disappointment with this film is merely because I am sentimental, let me also point out the editing was weak; I couldn’t stop staring at the greasy strand of hair that kept disappearing and reappearing in drug addict Kieran Culkin’s eye as he has a strained and circular conversation about his father’s alcoholism with his brother with Down syndrome (who is himself addicted to playing slasher video games). There was nothing cohesive or developed here. The dog’s appearances are incidental; the promotional descriptions are grossly misleading; I can’t believe Danny DeVito would stoop to participate in this. Weirdness for weirdness’ sake is not enough to make an interesting film. Watch anything else.

    • Joni Reppeto says:

      I absolutely agree with the observations in your review. I thought there was something wrong with me until I read your review. Absolutely the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Like one lady commented on our way out, “I want my afternoon back!”

    • wolfstarking says:

      Are you saying it’s bad because it’s depressing and you want every movie to be happy? Because if you knew Todd Solondz work you would know that was going to be the case here. Or did affected you on a personal level?

      • Joni Reppeto says:

        I absolutely agree with the observations in your review. I thought there was something wrong with me until I read your review. Absolutely the worst movie I’ve ever seen. Like one lady commented on our way out, “I want my afternoon back!”

      • Julie says:

        Go see the movie and you too will walk out with deep regret for the $$ wasted.
        It’s an utterly pointless film with zero appeal. Except for an occasional pretty shot.
        So boring I had to fight my desire to read my emails or do something / anything else.
        And I loved Welcome to the Dollhouse.

  7. Pat says:

    Great review. Although I wince at the phrase ‘Down’s Syndrome sufferers’; it seems inaccurate, somehow. Would we say a person was ‘suffering from’ blindness, for example? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say “a blissfully married couple with Down’s Syndrome’.

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