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Sundance Review: ‘Wiener-Dog’ is Todd Solondz’s Angriest Movie

Sundance Review: 'Wiener-Dog' is Todd Solondz's Angriest Movie

READ MORE: The 2016 Indiewire Sundance Bible

For more than 20 years, Todd Solondz’s sad, wacky universe of alienated individuals hasn’t waned. 1995’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” was only the tip of the iceberg in an ever-expanding series of ensemble dramas with darkly absurd twists. Even with that track record, however, “Wiener-Dog” — which pulls its title from the derogatory nickname given to the “Dollhouse” lead — marks the most radical, angry achievement in Solondz’s career to date. And it might be his most pointed one, as well.

Elegantly shot by “Carol” cinematographer Edward Lachman, “Wiener-Dog” combines surrealism with deadpan humor even when it’s not exactly funny. Broadly speaking, Solondz has targeted the vanity of attempting to live with purpose; more specifically, his movie reflects an outright frustration with the creative process. The outrageous premise suggests Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthasar” if the titular donkey were swapped for a dachshund and the realism gave way to droll existential despair. In simplest terms, the story follows the titular canine through a series of owners hailing from various stages of life. In each situation, however, the dog’s passive role stands in contrast to Solondz’s troubled characters, all of whom seem resigned to their fates.

While filled with awkward moments and disorienting transitions, “Wiener-Dog” maintains a precise vision throughout. In the first passage, nine-year-old Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) receives the dog as a gift from his father (Tracy Lett) as an attempt to console the young boy while he recovers from some unspecified accident; his mother (Julie Delpy, in a wonderfully frantic turn), is less than pleased. Within minutes, the suburban discontent that percolates throughout many Solondz films reaches a ridiculous extreme, with the boy inadvertently getting the dog sick. The scatological punchline keeps going and going until it stops being funny and turns into a kind of freakish poetry. That moment is followed by a climactic discussion between the child and his mother about the nature of mortality, which leads the youngster to conclude that “death is a good thing.” Dense with philosophy while utterly ludicrous, it sets the stage for the solemn chapters that follow.

Solondz next resurrects his most famous creation, Dawn Wiener, this time played by Greta Gerwig. A lonely vet tech, she adopts the pooch, nurses her back to health, eventually taking her with to a neighborhood convenience store, where she runs into former classmate Brandon (now played by Kieran Culkin). With nothing better to do, she follows him on an odyssey to score some drugs before visiting Brandon’s mentally disabled brother and his wife. The sequence grows increasingly tender, climaxing with a final gesture that would seem to be Solondz’s most idealistic moment. But like everything in the filmmaker’s bleak view, it’s short-lived; “Wiener-Dog” tracks the ephemeral nature of a world defined by discomfort.

Signaling as much, Solondz interrupts his film with an outrageous intermission set to an original tune titled “The Ballad of the Wiener-Dog.” It’s the first indication of the filmmaker’s cynical perspective on the desire for sheer entertainment that defines modern society, but the hits keep on coming. The dreariest chapter revolves around disgruntled film school professor Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), an obvious stand-in for the filmmaker himself, who desperately wants to produce a new script while his hotshot agent keeps him at bay. DeVito’s wrinkled brow perfectly encapsulates the neurotic fury at the heart of Solondz’s work, and his attempt to engage with indifferent students who find him uninspiring marks the apex of the movie’s tragic perspective.

But “Wiener-Dog” only brings the full weight of its rage against the world together in the final scenes, in which a cantankerous old grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) receives a visit from her spoiled, drug-addled granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) asking for cash. Their interactions play out with long pauses and somber looks that could be mistaken for outright comedy if they weren’t so inherently grim. “Don’t kid yourself,” the grandmother tells the younger woman about her prospects in life. That assertion reaches a fever pitch in a climactic sequence that marks the strangest, fantastical moment of Solondz’s whole career, and that’s saying a lot.

Bookended by images of the dachshund trapped in a box, gazing complacently outward, “Wiener-Dog” hits on a visual metaphor for Solondz’s entire career. With his wonderfully deranged final shot, Solondz suggests that the universe’s indifference toward individual struggles means that it’s not worth figuring out. Bizarre and challenging when it’s not outright goofy, “Wiener-Dog” never feels remotely compromised. Somehow hilarious and gloomy at the same time, it represents a big middle finger to anyone who wishes Solondz would lighten up.

Grade: A-


“Wiener-Dog” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

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Comments

Mike

Kathy, maybe don’t spoil the last scene in the movie. But thanks for sharing your grandma comment.

Gadzooks

Excellent point Gerard, lol.

John

Gerard — It’s "high schoo". I’m suprised you never learned that during your mature, deep artistic education. Pretty sure Kathy C’s reference to 500 people is the crowd in the cinema at Sundance.

David Heslin

A Todd Solondz film is "not at all appropriate for kids". Hahaha.

Bill

Life is already a depressing mess punctuated with small scenes of happiness. Why the hell would anyone decide that killing a dog in a movie has anything to do with art. Sounds resoundingly terrible as all Solondz’s self celebratory movies are

Anon

@Gerard, You seem to think that your opinion is fact and that anyone who disagrees is "immature." Newsflash, snob, your opinion isn’t fact and your argument about what constitutes a good or bad movie can be argued just the same the other way around. "Not liking a ‘kind’ of movie isn’t the same as it being bad." The same goes for you and your tastes.

Marilyn

I won’t see this POS movie. I don’t usually swear, but as someone who shares her heart and home with her husband and 3 dachshunds, no way would I waste my time or money on this movie. I know the ending, and it’s a slap in the face of every dog lover and owner, particularly of dachshunds.

Anonymous

@23553: While it is true that VOD movies can make them more accessible, not every single person can afford Netflix or Amazon.

Kel

Hands down one of the absolute worst movies I have ever seen. Cruel to the animal, NO plot line. It only gets worse as it goes. Really? You have to graphically run over the animal four times? Kathy C’s grade of C- is extraordinarily generous.

gerard

None of Solondz’s movies are appropriate for kids. Not every movie has to be for kids.
Solondz’s movies are usually disturbing, in a ‘learning’, this is real life way.
Those that can’t handle the maturity and artistic intelligence of these kind of movies,shouldn’t go, or should realize that they don’t care for those kind of movies, as opposed to saying it is ‘bad’.
Not liking a ‘kind’ of movie isn’t the same as it being bad.
And not all movies have to have a linear storyline.
Not all movies need to have a story or plot.
Character driven, character studies, aren’t plot oriented.
Sometimes it’s just slice of life, and/or delving into their psyche

    Anonymous

    Unfortunately Gerard is in the mindset that just because a movie is dreary, depressing, and has shock value that it must be good. These traits do not make a movie good or bad, and I’m sorry that you grew up to believe that negativity constitutes “real life” and “maturity.” Ironically, that sounds like something an edgy high schooler may think rather than an adult.

gerard

Based on kathy c’s comment, I definitely want to see it. I think Solonz is a great director.
Whenever I hear youth say it’s long, dull scenes, I know, it’s that short attention span age, who also hasn’t learned about more artistic, deeper meanings. Not just the surface.
A clue to maturity (hi school) was ‘the group of 500 I was with…’.
Pretty doubtful, but maybe if the 500 are of the same age mentality.
I’ve liked everything Solondz has done. I’m sure I’ll like this one.

Kathy c

Just saw at Sundance. Bizarre, unconnected, and long dull scenes of morbid nonesense. Not at all appropriate for kids and the acting is awful. Story line is no line. If you’re depressed already in life, don’t go. It’s so disturbing and weird that even the last scene with the dog meets a truck made people laugh from the bizarre nature of the filming. I give it a c-. The group of 500 I was with would concur.

23553

At least if Netflix or Amazon picks it up it’ll be accessible. I’d rather watch movies on my computer screen than not at all.

Anonymous

Like many, I have my fingers crossed that this won’t end up in the hands of VOD services like Netflix or Amazon.

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Brad

Just finished watching the film. Been a huge Solondz fan for years.I am also a lover of animals and although the ending is brutal I can separate reality from a film (even though dogs are ran over every day). When watching a work of fiction rest assured the animal (who is an actor itself) is still alive and probably living a better life than most humans. I really enjoyed the film and consider it one of his best. Especially after Dark Horse which I considered one of his worst. Even his worst films I enjoy much more than a lot of the crap released these days. Just my opinion.

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