×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Sundance Film Review: ‘Wiener-Dog’

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

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.

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4144190/

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.

More Film

  • 'How to Train Your Dragon: The

    'How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World' to Bow in China on March 1

    “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” will swoop into Chinese theaters on March 1, its Beijing-based promotion company He Song confirmed to Variety on Wednesday. The date puts its China release a week after its Feb. 22 debut in the U.S. and also pits it against “Green Book,” which has scored a China release [...]

  • Songs for Screens Powered by Mac

    Songs for Screens: Beyond 'Bohemian Rhapsody,' 2018 Was a Record Sync Year for Queen

    As “Bohemian Rhapsody” approaches a landmark $800 million at the global box office, another Queen milestone quietly took place in 2018. With appearances in nationwide campaigns for Amazon, Ram Trucks, Google, Peloton, Silk Almondmilk and many more, Queen’s music was licensed by more blue-chip brands than any other calendar year. And in the first few [...]

  • Sundance Film Festival Placeholder

    A Changing Film Market Raises the Pressure for Sundance Indies to Succeed (Column)

    Regretfully, I never go to the Sundance Film Festival anymore because I need to mind the editorial store back home, knowing that our crack team of reporters and critics will be filing great scoops and reviews while freezing their butts off (sorry!). I have lots of fond memories from the days when I frequented Park [...]

  • Jimmy Kimmel Oscars

    Will the Oscars Be a Hot Mess Without a Host?

    Who will host this year’s Oscars? With one month left until the telecast on Feb. 24, there’s still no definitive answer. Insiders tell Variety that the ceremony will likely buck the tradition of having a master of ceremonies. Instead, organizers have chosen to patch together a host-less show. That could mean a lot of airtime [...]

  • 2018 Sundance Film Festival - Egyptian

    Sundance Preview: Expect Political Moments and Few Costly Deals at 2019 Festival

    Zac Efron underwent a grueling physical transformation to play serial killer Ted Bundy in “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile,” a drama premiering at the Sundance Film Festival this week. “I lost 13 pounds,” Efron says. To prepare for the biographical role, he rode a stationary bike for an hour in the mornings while binge-watching [...]

  • Mindy Kaling photographed by Victoria Stevens

    Mindy Kaling Created Her Own Opportunities (and Doesn't Plan on Stopping)

    Over the course of two hit sitcoms, a couple of best-selling books and some scene-stealing turns in Hollywood blockbusters such as “Ocean’s 8” and “Inside Out,” Mindy Kaling has cultivated an image as a kinder, gentler and more relatable star than most. On Instagram or Twitter, where she routinely shares parenting anecdotes and restaurant recommendations, [...]

  • Jimi Hendrix sound check Monterey Pop

    Film Constellation Adds ‘Show Me the Picture’ to Berlin Market Slate (EXCLUSIVE)

    London-based sales and financing house Film Constellation has added Alfred George Bailey’s feature documentary “Show Me the Picture: The Story of Jim Marshall” to its Berlin market slate, ahead of the film’s SXSW premiere. Submarine Entertainment is handling distribution in North America. The film charts the life of American photographer James Joseph Marshall, whose work [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content