Before the screening of Todd Solondz’s latest film, “Wiener-Dog,” the filmmaker classified the film as a “comedy about despair.” No one could have summed up the film in such an apt manner. Who would’ve thought to pair an adorable dog with a series of misanthropes on their worst days? On many occasions it works, although each of the disparate parts work best on their own rather than one long binge into gloom.
The film follows a delightfully cute Dachshund as he views different shades of sadness from his multiple owners. His first home is with an acidic yuppie family in the suburbs. While the wide-eyed child of the house, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) adores the pup, his parents (Tracey Letts and Julie Delpy) cannot be bothered with taking care of any dog. One might be lulled into thinking this might be a heartwarming story about a child cancer survivor finding love in taking care of a dog. That person probably would not expect a tracking shot of dog diarrhea or an ace Delpy monologue about dog rape and venereal disease. Solondz’s bait and switch works really well to acclimate the audience to the sharp bile of the dialogue of the film. The dog’s POV becomes a nice tonic after Delpy delivers pitch perfect uncomfortable monologues. This remains one of the stronger, funnier sections of the film.
From there, the dog is entrusted to a lovesick veterinarian nurse (Greta Gerwig), pining after a guy who may or may not be right for her (Keiran Culkin). Gerwig remains an engaging presence, but is not well served by a story that gets shorted in the film. Whereas many of the others have indelible moments or absurdity or melancholy, this one just duds. Next, the dog finds himself in the custody of a Down’s Syndrome couple (Connor Long and Bridget Brown). The least dire of the guardians of this dog, it is yet another that fails to compel. While the couple is a refreshing break from the doom and gloom surrounding the dog, it seems to miss the devilish wit that permeates the other, more successful chapters of the film.
The following host to the lovable dog is a curmudgeonly screenwriting teacher (Danny DeVito) who finds his professional career and teaching job both slowly imploding. What starts as a slow march to a breakdown ends on such a glorious punch more akin to the maddening twists and turns of “Wild Tales.” DeVito does some of his most understated, but strong work here. The whole section acts as a particularly pointed rant against film schools and the indie film scene. It’s as if Solondz had a real axe to grind and it seethes through in hilarious fashion here.
Finally, the dog winds up with a salty woman past her prime (Ellen Burstyn) who has nightmares on the different lives she could have lived. This terrifying nightmare is one of the most inspired moments of the feature. This chapter for the film, however, starts as the woman’s granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) visits and feigns interest in her life and new dog long enough to weasel away money for her pretentious artist boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael James Shaw). For as good as the other actors do with the dialogue, it is Burstyn who emerges strongest from only cursory looks of disdain and dissatisfaction.
The overall craft is strong, with a buoyant score and some engaging cinematography elevating the proceedings. The film might not quite be as good as the sum of its parts, but it is overall a distinct and singular experience. Just when you think you have the tone figured out, Solondz pulls the rug out from under you yet again.