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