Written & Directed by Todd Solondz
I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed a Todd Solondz film, but I have been continually fascinated by them. He is such a profoundly misanthropic filmmaker with an aesthetic that clashes with the darkness of his material. Wiener-Dog is his most recent film, and it won’t toss anything new at familiar audiences. The film hits on the same gripes Solondz has always ranted about: the soullessness of the middle class, the lack of art in cinema, the inevitability of our deaths. All of this is told in a bright, warm pastel palette complete with a soundtrack that creates a dissonance with the themes of the picture.
Wiener-Dog is an anthology film that uses the titular house pet as the link between stories. The first vignette is about a child survivor of cancer who is gifted the dog by his less than caring parents. If you know Solondz work, then you will sit through this first entry waiting for the terrible thing to happen. The second piece revisits the character of Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse, who is an adult working at a veterinarian’s office. Dawn adopts the dog and runs into Brandon, her bully from that previous film. They embark on a road trip that ends with the dog being handed off to someone else. From there, Solondz abandons creating the link and has the dog show up first in the ownership of a disgruntled film school professor and finally as the companion of an octogenarian on death’s door.
Solondz still shows signs of his dark view of humanity but has seemingly softened on some aspects of his storytelling. The ending given to Dawn Wiener is remarkably poignant and tender. There is still an element of uncertainty, but no ominous threat lingers over her head. Throughout Dawn’s segment, we get the most earnest material culminating in a stay with the brother and sister-in-law of Brandon, both of whom have Down’s syndrome. It’s clear that Solondz views these characters are the most honest he’s presenting; they wear their emotions externally and don’t engage in the monotonous small talk that other people might. Nothing in this segment is played for gross-out or shocks.
The best segment of the four, in my opinion, is the film professor story. Danny Devito plays Dave Schmerz, a screenwriter who is teaching to pay the bills. He’s been shopping around a follow-up screenplay to his first success, nineteen years prior, but finds an industry disinterested in what he has to offer. A former student now working director comes back to the school for a Q&A and humiliates Dave by demeaning his teaching style. Dave decides to use the dog as part of his plan of revenge. Solondz does an excellent job of never ultimately siding with anyone in this story; he also directs Devito to play everything low key, so there never is an explosive outburst. It’s this sort of character Solondz is best at, the simmering has-been that will never actually explode on the people who mock him.
Wiener-Dog will likely be remembered as an older, more toothless version of Solondz’s work. I feel he peaked with Palindromes and since then has done fairly straightforward redundant films. I doubt we will see Solondz move outside of his comfort zone, but I think he would have a lot to bring to other genres of movie, especially something historical. There’s such a disconnect from the romantic in his work and people spend most of their time staring out into space. Solondz doesn’t seem to align with any formal political ideology and thus could provide some insightful commentary on the 20th century, beyond his era.