They don’t call Todd Solondz “The King Of Feel-Bad Cinema” for nothing. Few directors expose the horror that exists beneath the well manicured facade of the suburban dream as frightfully as he. Wiener-Dog is only his 8th feature since 1989. A prolific filmmaker he is not. Welcome To The Dollhouse was the 1996 picture that put the New Jersey native on the indie map. It still remains his biggest success to this day. While subsequent releases have seen less box office, most have achieved a certain level of critical acclaim. All are informed by his cruel, albeit multi-layered take on the human condition.
In Wiener-Dog, four tales are linked together by the presence of the same dachshund. As she inhabits the lives of four different individuals, we come to learn the details of the families within. There’s Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a sensitive little boy who is a cancer survivor, Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), an awkward young woman who runs into an old crush, Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito) a screenwriting professor disregarded by his students, and Nana (Ellen Burstyn), an elderly woman visited by her granddaughter (Zosia Mamet). You can see the director’s alter ego in the lead protagonist as the focus of each story gets a little older. The spirit of every principal beaten down by the inequities of life.
Mortality is a fact of life. Death isn’t a cheerful idea, but it is real. Because Todd Solondz deals in these themes, he is not an easy director to like. His worldview is bleak and pessimistic. Oh and did I mention this is a comedy? A very funny one at that if you can cuddle up to the movie’s prickly charms. The absurdity of the conversations within can be laugh out loud hilarious at times. There’s even an intermission scored to an original countrified song called “The Ballad of the Wiener-Dog”. It adds just the right amount of levity before embarking on the production’s even more somber 2nd half. Aided by gorgeous cinematography by Edward Lachman, he lends a hyper surreality to these mundane settings.
The pup in Wiener-Dog features heavily in each episode. Yet despite the title, this is really about people, not the canine. The beloved pet is merely a construct that gives us an excuse to follow an assortment of characters. There’s a world weary tone to these sagas, but there’s also the soul of humanity as well. For example the relationship between Remi and the dachshund is pure and sweet. They share a friendship to which his parents are immune. We sympathize with the various heroes in their respective vignettes, even though they may have serious flaws. There’s an authenticity to that. I mean we are flawed too, right? As the film marches to its inevitable conclusion, we brace ourselves. Todd Solondz has contempt for the Hollywood happy ending. Wiener-Dog is typified by a grisly finale that hits you like a slap in the face. Then the camera lingers on the event. There’s a palpable rage against society here. The experience may sting, but the script still makes a sincere plea for mankind. I saw hope amidst the despair. That’s kind of powerful.