The Review/Feature/

Wiener-Dog is a Movie of Ifs, Ands and Excrement

And it might just be Todd Solondz’s most redemptive film yet

Aug 4, 2016

See Wiener-Dog at the TIFF Bell Lightbox now!

Best known for his sadistic depictions of suburban American life, possibilities both happy and abject drive Solondz’s new film, Wiener-Dog — an episodic comedy in the lowest of keys. Wrote A.O. Scott in his recent New York Times review of the auteur’s work: “Selfishness trumps empathy. Intimacy is the surest route to humiliation. Ambition is the handmaiden of failure. Cruelty is pervasive, innocence is toxic, and the most likable people are the ones who are most honest in their hatefulness.” Solondz also depicts, sometimes repeatedly, taboo subjects like pedophilia, rape and abuse without sentimentality or apology. By distilling all of life’s worst aspects in one place, Solondz makes his viewers thirst for the banality of their own.

In his more recent films, like 2004’s Palindromes and 2009’s Life During Wartime, Solondz broke down the individuated identities of his characters, tagging in actors of varying age, race and gender to play the same part. His way of rotating actors in and out signals change in a way that’s impossible to ignore, while destabilizing our belief in who these characters are. Solondz uses characters like chess pieces, undermining their humanity to keep his audience in check.

In Wiener-Dog, it’s the contexts that change and the characters with them. Here, Solondz manages to mostly evade his own sense of fatalism, making a film that revises itself each time the story reaches a miserable, or at least ambivalent, conclusion. The eponymous Wiener passes through the hands of multiple owners, though we only see her life with four of them. The dog’s stoic appraisal of her milieu and an unconditional (if dispassionate) love becomes a relational vector through which a series of characters show who they are in capsule narratives. In allowing for multiple attempts at something like happiness, Solondz creates a sweeping arc spanning several lives, united by a single compliant dog.

Wiener-Dog begins her infancy (time is never precisely marked, but her life has a clear beginning and end) with a family as conspicuously white as their stucco-and-glass brick house. Presented to Remi, their young son and a recent cancer survivor, the presence of the animal instantly sets off an array of household issues related to a) mortality, and b) self-interest, that his parents (an irate Julie Delpy and a smug Tracy Letts) manage in increasingly desperate ways. Letts’ bellowing of “heel, motherfucker,” while pursuing the oblivious dachshund is only one of many indelible moments.

Meanwhile, Remi and Wiener-Dog develop an idyllic rapport, naturally expressed as a montage - Remi tootles some chill flute at Wiener and pushes her on a skateboard to an adorable theme song, he jumps in the air surrounded by feathers (from all the throw pillows they’ve ripped open), the rigid dog gripped in his small arms. As if Solondz would allow for such unadulterated sweetness, Remi feeds Wiener a bit of granola bar, which cues a spell of truly explicit diarrhea. Captured in a long, Debussy-accompanied pan, a shit-leaking Wiener-Dog is rushed to the vet, where she is left to be put down.

But Wiener-Dog is afforded another shot at life, literal moments before she’s to be euthanized. Her saviour is the original Wiener-Dog — Dawn Wiener, the central figure of Solondz’s first and biggest “hit” Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995). Dollhouse starred Heather Matarazzo as the bracingly uncool, deep feeling 11-year-old, nicknamed “Wiener-Dog” by Brandon, local psychopath and crush. Now played by Greta Gerwig, Dawn somehow managed to ferry all of her pre-adolescent misapprehensions into adulthood, adding new ones to further enrich her helplessness. In spite of this, she steals the animal from the operating table in a moment of instinctive heroism and nurses her back to health. Cradled in Dawn’s arms, Wiener-Dog is rechristened as Doody. “Like shit?” everyone who meets her asks. “She has a delicate stomach,” Dawn explains, slack with doubt.

Alternating between tenderness and intolerable grimness, Welcome to the Dollhouse was the ice bath from which viewers emerged trembling, the world seen anew through Solondz’s hateful gaze. It’s a romantic comedy where the boy you like phones to let you know that he intends to rape you at 3pm — “so be there.” The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the 1996 Sundance Film Festival, marking Solondz as both a king of godless storytelling and most likely an asshole.

Now 20 years later, Dawn reunites with the grown-up Brandon (an aching, understated Kieran Culkin) by the dog food shelf in a local convenience store. On a whim, he invites her on a road trip to Ohio, during which they appear to rekindle their former, tentative connection. Doody is a stalwart witness, sitting like an effigy on Dawn’s lap. Inside a movie formalized by possibilities, this is the gentlest one. Solondz allows Dawn a kind of love, unlike the fathomless end of Welcome to the Dollhouse, or the beginning of Palindromes, which opens with Dawn’s own funeral, dead by suicide. In this rewrite, Dawn is awarded a minimum of mercy, her martyrdom transferred to the namesake she brought back to life and then gives away.

Lifted from the safety of Dawn’s arms, Wiener-Dog finds herself possessed (and un-named) by the compact and myopic Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), who clutches her to his chest with the pinched look of a mother whose infant has just been insulted. DeVito’s beleaguered Schmerz is a filmmaker short on filmmaking, and thus devotes himself to teaching — devotion, in this instance, meaning total indifference. Pitiful in every sense of the word, he still carries a message that even in its stalest form seems like intelligent storytelling advice: “What if?” he asks, a catchphrase droned Ad nauseum in the general direction of his students, followed by a shrill, “then what?” In a scene of classic Solondzian mortification, his one claim to wisdom is mocked publicly by a former student-turned-successful director. Schmerz flees the lecture hall.

In Schmerz’s office is an indiscreetly hung poster for his first film, a corny sex farce called Apricots! that features mistaken identities, the mafia and perhaps, a whisper of shtick. (“Everyone likes a little shtick,” he mewls, in the saddest, longest beat of the film.) The poster, upon closer Googling, is a near-exact copy of Woody Allen’s 1971 film Bananas!, down to the font. From the outset of his career, Solondz has always fielded comparisons to Allen —from their glasses, to their New York-ish upbringings, to their wheedling voices, to certain commonalities of humour. But, for all those superficial alignments, Solondz never received either the acclaim or industry support that Allen has enjoyed. Rather, the filmmaker has been criticized and reviled for his sick sensibility.

With that inescapable poster, Solondz posits a very large what if: what if Woody Allen had made one mediocre comedy and then resigned himself to instructing the young filmmakers of tomorrow? (As Solondz himself does at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.) What if Woody Allen lived alone in a modest walk-up, waiting for his agent to stop dodging his calls? What if Woody Allen ceased to receive the privileges granted to him by another, nostalgic age? Then what? For Schmerz, it means (spoiler alert) putting Wiener-Dog in a tiered yellow dress and a dynamite-wired vest. When the world denies him a satisfying “what if?”, the screenwriter makes one up for himself.

The fourth and final act of Wiener-Dog concludes a course that began in childhood and touches down on decrepit old age, embodied by the terrible and majestic Nana (Ellen Burstyn, in one of the film’s many small, sublime performances). Even with her eyes masked by dark glasses, Nana sees and feels everything, caustic to the point of drinking antacid like Gatorade. Wiener-Dog/Doody – now called Cancer – reclines on the couch, her long, doleful nose resting sweetly on Nana’s lap as if exhausted by her ordeals.

After a visit from her struggling granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) and her artist boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael Shaw), Nana retires to her yard, where a chorus of tiny dulcet redheads emerge from the surrounding greenery and introduce themselves as all her possible selves. “This is you,” they say, making balletic hand gestures, had she been kinder to her daughter, or had she tipped better, a skulk of them rounding in on her. Burstyn’s face opens to her misdeeds, which now seem (when spoken in the cool voice of her accusers) as shameful as any crime. This is the opposite of Solondz’s usual emotional rugburn. Instead, a woman at the end of her life sees, or perhaps feels, the hollow space on the other side of all the what ifs she didn’t answer. In a reckoning that holds the viewer’s gaze with kindness and not stupefaction, Wiener-Dog/Doody/Cancer dashes from Nana’s side into blaring traffic, meeting her then what without hesitation.

In his other movies, Solondz told stories about how the people we cared for humanized us. When we faltered, we were benched for a new player. Having been encouraged to care about Wiener-Dog, the animal’s brusque demise is all the more offensive. The humans are now left alone, bereft of the character that animated them and gave them all something to love. The movie ends with a shot of Wiener-Dog, now an actual effigy, around which smiling, fashionable people mingle and schmooze. It’s both cynical and redemptive at once, implying that even if her previous owners remained unhappy and unloved, that weird little dog offered some relief - and maybe even release - from the meanness of everyday life.