Todd Solondz has been making movies since 1989, and became the toast of Sundance and American art-houses with just his second film, 1995’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” But the writer-director hasn’t been all that prolific throughout his career, producing only eight features in just over a quarter-century. In part that’s due to the ups and downs of the indie film market. It’s also because it takes time to come up with something unlike what any other filmmaker could or would do. That’s a big reason why each new Solondz project attracts all-star casts, even though everyone who signs on to them has to know up-front that their commercial prospects are close to nil. Who could turn down the chance to work on something so undeniably unusual?
For his latest picture, the quasi-anthology “Wiener-Dog,” Solondz has Danny DeVito, Greta Gerwig, Zosia Mamet, Ellen Burstyn, Julie Delpy, and Kieran Culkin pop up on the screen for short stretches. Behind the camera, he’s working with veteran indie producer Christine Vachon (who previously handed Solondz’s controversial 1998 comedy “Happiness”) for Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, which has developed a reputation for paying good money to amplify unique voices. Together, this team produces what may be the closest the filmmaker has gotten in years to something mainstream — inasmuch as any Todd Solondz film could ever be considered a crowd-pleaser.
“Wiener-Dog” is divided into four parts, separated in the middle by an adorable intermission (complete with an original song written by Tony-winning composer Marc Shaiman). Each segment tells its own story, with its own characters — all united by a cute Dachshund who keeps getting passed from household to household. In part one, Delpy plays the mother of a young cancer-survivor, who emerged from that scare with scores of questions about death, disease, and happiness — all of which he funnels into conversations with his mom about his dog. Part two functions as a semi-sequel to “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” with a grown-up Dawn Wiener (now played by Gerwig) joining her old high school bully/crush Brandon (Culkin) on an initially inexplicable road trip, with her new pooch in tow. In part thee, a dog-loving has-been screenwriter named Schmerz (DeVito) relies on his dachshund to help him overcome the possible loss of his day-job as an adjunct professor. In the last part, Burstyn’s a cranky older woman who impatiently listens to her granddaughter (Mamet) make small talk, which she knows will lead to a request for money.
Each of these pieces are distinct enough from the others that that they almost demand to be judged separately. The best are the opener and the closer. Delpy’s segment plays like an R-rated children’s film, full of bright colors and “aww”-inducing shots of the kid playing with his new pet, interspersed with scenes of his mom explaining, in hilariously simplistic terms, why the dog has to get spayed. But while the performances in that first segment are fairly broad, Mamet’s turn as a desperate, broke, disappointing young woman is far more realistic and heartbreaking, and matched by a Burstyn performance that starts out chilly and then thaws unexpectedly — and movingly. Burstyn also anchors the best sequence in “Wiener-Dog,” where she’s visited by the ghosts of all the versions of herself that she could’ve become if she’d just been a little nicer.
But the other two parts in “Wiener-Dog” are much dryer and slower, coming off as yet another example of the ever-quirky Solondz retreating into arid irony. The “Welcome to the Dollhouse” connection is far too tenuous to save Gerwig’s tedious section (which fails through no fault of her own), while the DeVito piece is clever as a bit of meta-commentary on Solondz’s own life as a filmmaker/professor, but traffics in too many obvious cliches about Hollywood and academia. Even bearing in mind that all four of these mini-films comment on each other to some extent — using the dog as a way into talking about what our society really values — fully half of “Wiener-Dog” is a slog.
What saves the movie is Solondz’s sensibility, which is still one-of-a-kind. He’s always had a good eye, which he uses to fill “Wiener-Dog” with memorable images — from a little boy playing the flute for his dachshund to a few scenes featuring The World’s Saddest Traveling Mariachi Band. Not everything Solondz comes up with works, but he’s still pulling interesting ideas out of his oddball head. Who but Solondz would include a long lyrical tracking shot across puddles of dog-diarrhea set to “Claire de Lune”? Maybe those poop-streaks are a metaphor for the cruelty and capriciousness of life. Or maybe he just threw them into “Wiener-Dog” because he’s Todd Solondz. That’s what he does. [B-]