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.)
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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.