‘Wiener-Dog’ sometimes barks up the right tree
Written/directed by: Todd Solondz
Starring: Julie Delpy, Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, and Kieran Culkin
“Wiener-Dog” – Growing up, I regularly enjoyed trips to my grandparents’ house in rural Pennsylvania. On any random Sunday, Grandma would whip up a Thanksgiving Day-like feast, Grandpa would make us laugh, and they both let my two brothers and I make liberal – and sometimes admittedly careless - use of their pool table. Best of all, we played with their dachshund named Samantha.
Samantha was fairly overweight and constantly barked like a dying seal, but there is something about dachshunds that make them completely loveable. Perhaps, it is because their bodies – with long torsos and stumpy legs - are so utterly impractical that we feel more of a parental bond with them. Plus, they are so darn cute!
Well, writer/director Todd Solondz pulled together a movie which showcases a very cute dachshund over the course of her life, as she moves between four different owners. Solondz is known for creating provocative, sarcastic and dark – but comedic - material within the confines of a dysfunctional American experience, and “Wiener-Dog” is no exception. In this case, the tricky proposition is to insert this loveable pet into the mires of her owners’ depressing and maladjusted lives.
This odd combination of positive and negative charges within various households carries the potential for intriguing cinema and conflict, and in spots, “Wiener-Dog” is successful. The four stories, however, do not adhere nearly enough connective tissue, and the picture’s overall narrative becomes muddled. Muddled is an accurate way to describe the attitudes of Wiener-Dog’s owners. Solondz introduces us to a loveless married couple (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts) in which cynicism dominates every inch of their gorgeous, modern home, a directionless vet assistant (Greta Gerwig), an aging professor (Danny DeVito) whose ambition left him decades ago, and a sullen grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) living in her not-so-golden years.
For some reason, Solondz does not show, nor explain, the pet handoff between the four households and simply inserts the dog into the individual stories. It is a purposeful and tactical script decision, but part of the fun of a compilation piece (like this) is to physically see how the dachshund travels from house to house and therefore, not experiencing these transitions feels like a missed opportunity. Secondly, although the dog (named Wiener-Dog in one story and Cancer in another) is obviously included in each of the four tales, but she only feels integral in the first one. As the film moves forward, Wiener-Dog or Cancer just seems like window dressing, as the real focus falls upon the depressing pet owners.
Depressing does not necessarily mean uninteresting, because all of the owners generate some thought-provoking moments due to the cast’s cinematic gifts and Solondz’s skilled writing. As the characters spew acidic feelings, woefully choose the nearest person as a mate, mire in self-pity, or reflect on massive regrets, Solondz peaks our interest into how each individual arrived at these points. Which wrong life-turns led them to their current state of being(s)? While we speculate on their past mistakes, the film helps us reflect on any past missteps of our own and immediately want to correct them!
The movie is not a complete downer, however, because it includes some highly engaging visual treats, like carefully-chosen moments of slow motion, one three-minute shot of Wiener-Dog sitting in a glass pen and the pink attire of an unusual artist named Fantasy (Michael James Shaw). Referring back to his writing, Solondz also does pen some hilarious moments amongst the toxicity, because in this bungled world view of America – complete with convenience stores and nondescript apartment complexes - we have no choice but to laugh.
I did laugh and reflect and also left the theater thinking that humans are not always capable owners who our pets truly deserve. Perhaps that is the connective tissue between the four stories, but I am just guessing. Unfortunately, “Wiener-Dog” does not gel into one holistic movie experience. (2.5/4 stars)