Director: Todd Solondz
R | 1h 30min | Comedy | 24 June 2016 (USA)
Wiener-Dog, from the master of misanthropy Todd Solondz, is most definitely not a film to see if you actually like dogs. It is an old shibboleth of Hollywood that you don’t kill the puppy. Solondz doesn’t just kill the puppy; he straps a bomb vest to it, blows it up, and runs it over about a dozen times. This film serves its humour up jet-black as coffee, with a surface layer of sickly marzipan on top. Though deliciously, deviously deadpan funny at times, it is also a cruel piece of work that won’t be to everyone’s taste for sure, though if you’ve encountered Solondz’s films before (he wrote and directed Happiness and Life During Wartime) you will know what to expect. And one thing you should expect is that the official Sundance blurb for this - “Wiener-Dog tells several stories featuring people who find their life inspired or changed by one particular dachshund, who seems to be spreading a certain kind of comfort and joy” - is a total lie.
There is an actual dog in this film, a sausage dog dubbed “Wiener-Dog" by its first owner (though later names include “DooDee" and the more blunt “Cancer”), but despite the synopsis, the dog is more of a doe-eyed bystander as it gets passed from one group of miserable fuck-ups to another across various nameless parts of suburban America, where all surfaces seem soulless and sickly in colour (as if Wes Anderson got the wrong filter setting on his iPhone) and everyone is miserable, bored, or both. Wiener Dog Starts off as the new pet of Addams-Family-esque pre-teen Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), who’s father (Tracy Letts) regales him with reactionary lectures about imposing his ‘will’ on the dog, whilst his mother Dina (Julie Delpy) narrates jaw-droppingly racist tales of the kinds of molestation dogs have been known to inflict on squirrels (of all animals) if they are not spayed.
After shitting herself almost to death in one scene due to eating a granola bar, with Solondz giving us a nice lengthy tracking shot at the impressively heavy trail of shit in the driveway as a twinkly tune plays, Wiener Dog is packed off to a nerdy vet (Greta Gerwig as Solondz mainstay Dawn Wiener), and later on ends up the pet of the suicidal, struggling screenwriting Professor Schmurtz (Danny DeVito), who’s breakdown in his Director’s office as he mourns the rejections of his frankly terrible-sounding scripts is one of the film’s highlights, topped only by what he then does to get revenge on his faculty.
There’s even an intermission scored to an original song (“The Ballad of Wiener-Dog,” written by Tony winner Marc Shaiman) with a so-cute digitally-enhanced tracking shot of this lovable little dog waddling across various all-American backgrounds. But what Weiner-Dog is really about, apart from dog shit of course, is death. Each of the characters Wiener-Dog ends up with are at different, advancing ages throughout their lives, with the dog’s final owner, a cantankerous grandmother played by Ellen Burstyn, being the furthest along the path. None of them are allowed to handle the concept of the end with any grace, not even Burstyn’s character, who in one hugely funny but brutal scene, has to face a trio of identical-looking child angels, who each in turn in their sing-song voices pour buckets of shit over what has passed for her life up to this point. Solondz is all for shooting that kind of salvation thinking down, just as he is all for crushing the Hollywood idea that the puppy has to always dodge danger and survive to the end of the movie.