Cinematic Releases: Wiener-Dog

Andrew reviews the misanthropic director's latest provocation.

Todd Solondz, that self-proclaimed misanthropic, pessimistic provocateur who uses candy colored visions of deathly dark comedy to express often disturbing visions, is back with his most episodic narrative since his 2004 shocker Palindromes.  The poster, title and tonality of his anthological rumination on depressed mortality, Wiener-Dog, like his other films has the surface appeal of a plasticine rom-com which can fool some into thinking they bought a ticket to My Dog Skip but the heart and soul of a bitter, angry man.  While not as compelling as his previous works, this star studded ensemble piece consisting of four disparate stories linked by the titular canine in question marks yet another snide auto-critique in the provocateur’s filmography that is at once despondent and oddly hilarious with particular emphasis on his own twisted take on Kids Say the Darndest Things.  Not since Storytelling has the director gone so far out of his way to critique the state of filmmaking affairs with not one but two episodes focusing on the facile attitude of filmmaking and art in general.  It also manages to cram in some of his most disgusting canine jokes since the finale of his still greatest work, Happiness

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Reuniting with Life During Wartime and Ken Park cinematographer Ed Lachman, the film opens on a striking, sickly looking bright green/yellow image of the titular wiener dog in a cage as the opening credits silently roll over the sounds of dogs barking and howling from their pound cages.  Giving the impression of imprisonment which will progress further as the canine is transported from owner to owner over the course of the movie, this one shot sets the tone for Solondz’s tightly constructed exercise in cynicism.  As with his previous films, it all looks and sounds like a family entertainment but digs it’s enraged claws deep into viewers’ respective psyches with a unique brand of transgression that is unmistakably Solondz’s.  Fans of the director however, who always find something to laugh at no matter how horrible the circumstances, are likely to come away underwhelmed by Wiener-Dog which bottles in all of the director’s hate but never transgresses beneath the skin in the ways Happiness and Palindromes do.  The first two stories, including a veterinarian nurse named Dawn (Greta Gerwig) hitchhiking with a drug addict named Brandon (Kieran Culkin) are fairly hopeful meditations on adolescence where the last two concerning a screenwriting professor named Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito’s most depressing performance yet) and an elderly walker-bound Nana (Ellen Burstyn) are bound to drain dry whatever life and happiness you have left in your blood.

All things considered, as much as I always enjoy a good Solondz excretion upon good taste, morale and culturally accepted norms, Wiener-Dog through no fault of its episodic narrative simply tends to meander from segment to segment.  Where Palindromes was anchored by the concept of a gender/age/race shifting girl, the episodes here feel as abstract and unrelated as the two chapters of his semi-autobiographical self-deprecating Storytelling.  With Happiness, despite the cross-cutting narrative and thinly connected stories, it all seemed to come together in the end where Wiener-Dog deliberately leaves its anecdotes untied.  It also doesn’t hit nearly as hard as the director has in the past and I kept yearning in the back of my mind for Dylan Baker’s child molesting dad from Happiness to show up and wreak unholy havoc.  I also hate to say this but I think Mr. Solondz is approaching the verge of repeating himself, as the inquisitive child with a curious intellect beyond his years in service to Solondz’s subversion, is something we already saw in Happiness and Storytelling.  Yes the film is often funny, sad and revelatory with moments of genuine horror and disgust but where Happiness still manages to sneak up on you with a sharp and painful sting, Wiener-Dog tends towards a light smack on the cheek which hurts for a few minutes before you’re able to easily shrug it off.  I enjoyed the film and will always see whatever Solondz does next but if you’re waiting for him to top the transgressive artistic heights of Happiness with his next feature, prepare to continue waiting.


- Andrew Kotwicki