A Todd Solondz film is an acquired taste and, perhaps appropriately, the vast majority of America will never acquire it.
At his best, and Solondz is damn near always at his best, Solondz is an uncompromising filmmaker whose cinematic creations do things and say things and show things that filmmakers, at least filmmakers who actually want a lasting career, don't dare to say.
Wiener-Dog, at first glance, may not seem like the Todd Solondz of years past with such controversial films as Happiness, Storytelling and his breakthrough film, Welcome to the Dollhouse. While Solondz has never shied away from challenging subject matter like pedophilia, rape and a variety of others that one wouldn't exactly consider Hollywood fare, the truth is that Solondz long ago gave up the notion of being anything resembling a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker. With films that largely exist on indie scene yet also with enough credibility that indie studios pay attention, Solondz has crafted a critically acclaimed twenty-year career making films that seem to always look on the dark side of life.
That may be unfair to Solondz. I'm not sure that Solondz considers his stories particularly dark nor his characters that particularly outside the mainstream. In fact, I think that may be part of Solondz's point.
Good people do bad things. Bad people do good things. We all seek human connection, but manage to fuck it up when we find it.
In the end, none of it really matters.
Solondz, a self-acknowledged atheist, may be surprised to find this rather devout pastoral personality amongst his loyal fans. I not only admire Solondz's boldness and honesty, I find it entertaining. I find his films, including this one, to be refreshingly devoid of pretense and filled to the brim with authenticity and stark reality. I've long believed that for many people faith is used as a way of giving life a meaning that doesn't actually exist.
It's the same for love. And relationship. And connection. And, well, just about everything else. It simultaneously means everything in the world and it means absolutely nothing.
I think Solondz gets that. I think Solondz would get why I find myself in the church pew on most Sunday mornings, though he'd probably laugh about it then write some scene where my paralyzed ass would end up raped by some well-meaning pastor.
Because, well, sometimes that search for meaning doesn't exactly go where we want it to go. Still, we go.
If you've never watched a Solondz film, Wiener-Dog is a great place to start as long as you don't make the mistake of thinking that adorable little dachshund on the movie poster is the latest incarnation of Air Buddies or Benji or any other of Hollywood's adorable little puppies.
There's really not much adorable here. Four stories. A search for meaning that seemingly has no meaning. The meaningless hits us right away in Wiener-Dog thanks to an opening shot that lingers on a row of cages where the dog in question has been unceremoniously placed. It is a beautifully realized yet jarring scene, one of several such scenes captured by Carol and Far From Heaven D.P. Edward Lachman that somehow manages to capture the soothing nature of a futile existence.
The dog's journey starts off with Danny (Tracy Letts), a self-absorbed guy, bringing home a dog to his son, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), who seems to have just survived some cancer-like illness and whose fragility leaves him longing for a connection that doesn't exist with his parents, Danny and Dina (Julie Delpy). The dog, quickly named Wiener-Dog, seems to be as much a curiosity for the boy as an actual companion. Through the dog, the boy explores illness and death and connection and something resembling joy that never quite sticks. Danny and Dina are parents only in the sense that somehow their self-absorbed lovemaking somehow created this young boy who is a reflection of their own personalities tasked with providing care to another living being yet having never been embedded with the compassion gene. As is often true for Solondz films, Wiener-Dog's experience with the family runs the gamut from mere existence to nearly indescribably joy to most probably death.
Next up, Solondz re-introduces his most iconic character - Dawn Wiener, whose nickname in Welcome to the Dollhouse has now become the dog's name for much of the film. Now portrayed by Greta Gerwig, today's go-to actress for such characters, Dawn is now a socially repressed vet tech who rescues Wiener-Dog from being put to sleep in her workplace.
There's no logical reason, of course, other than her own ability to bathe in the pain of everyone else while completely lacking insight with her own life journey. She meets up with Brandon, her friend from Dollhouse now a meth-head played by Kieran Culkin. She and Wiener-Dog join him for a drug-seeking trip to Ohio, though as near as anyone can tell she doesn't do drugs and is mostly searching for something to do because it's something to do. She meets his family including a sibling with Down Syndrome portrayed, rather surprisingly, by an actor with Down Syndrome named Connor Long.
Wouldn't it just figure? Solondz would infuse an already rich and authentic scene with even more richness and authenticity. There's a rare intimacy in these scenes, not the jaded and cynical kind that permeates Solondz's films but a vulnerable and quiet one that is quite beautiful to watch. It doesn't have a major pay-off, of course. That's how Hollywood handles such things, not Solondz.
The third scenario in Wiener-Dog is perhaps its most powerful, mostly owing to Danny DeVito's poignant and insightful performance as Dave Schmerz, a floundering film school professor and one-time successful screenwriter whose students don't respect him and whose agent now largely dismisses him. It's a difficult story to watch, not so much because we assume we're watching glimpses of Solondz, himself an adjunct professor now at NYU, but because we picture this kind of story unfolding for countless numbers of Hollywood's one-hit wonders and/or original voices. DeVito's Schmerz is seemingly reduced to film school cliche's, yet DeVito's performance is heartbreaking in its honesty and infuses the entire story with an almost aching melancholy that never flinches because Solondz is not one to flinch and gives DeVito one of his best roles in years.
The final scene, if you're watching closely, comes full circle yet makes it seem like we haven't gone anywhere. Ellyn Burstyn is a bitter and isolative grandmother who has changed Wiener-Dog's name, because it felt right, and whose unseen glare behind a pair of shades can't mask the wall she's built up between everyone and everything including her visiting granddaughter, Zoe (Zosia Mamet), and her boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael James Shaw).
Along the way in Wiener-Dog, Solondz paints painful portraits of human relationships and intimacy and the search for meaning amongst life shittiest experiences. The camera lingers, on pain and isolation and tragedy, as if Solondz is telling us that these are the results of our desire for attachment.
Yet, we keep trying.
The film includes an intermission of sorts, yeah a real one, complete with a Spaghetti Western-styled theme song called "The Ballad of Wiener Dog." It's odd and it's weird and it's Solondz and it works perfectly.
Wiener-Dog may not please those who hunger for the Solondz who tackles controversial subject matter with fierce integrity, but for those who've been paying attention to Solondz's films all these years Wiener-Dog will be an absolute delight and Solondz's boldest yet most precise cinematic statement on the futility of seeking meaning yet. With tremendous performances from the ensemble cast, most notably Devito's award-worthy turn and top notch efforts from Gerwig, Delpy and Burstyn, Wiener-Dog may be less shocking than some of Solondz's earliest work but it may very well be his most memorable film to date.
Picked up by Amazon for distribution at Sundance Film Festival, Wiener-Dog is currently on a limited theatrical run nationwide with IFC Films. It arrives in Indianapolis on July 8th at Landmark's Keystone Arts Cinema.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic