There’s a simple truth when it comes to filmmaker Todd Solondz work; if you don’t like his films there is no amount of reevaluation that will change that opinion and none of his subsequent work will all of a sudden make you a fan either. On the other hand, if you’re like me and enjoy his work, all of his movies will delight you in a way that others will see as pretty sick and twisted. As I’ve already stated before, and especially in the last few weeks with The Neon Demon and Swiss Army Man, this kind of stuff is my bread and butter. Always has been, always will be. So just know, dear reader, this is a pro-Solondz review.
I’ve dug Todd Solondz work ever since I caught Welcome To The Dollhouse on a Canadian television station called Showcase. Since then, I’ve always kept my ear out for all of his work, really rallying around his later films Happiness and Palindromes. 2009 saw the release of his film Life During Wartime, a follow-up to Happiness and a film that was deemed so interesting that it was included in the prestigious Criterion Collection. Now comes Wiener-Dog, a sort of sequel to that first film to put him on the map and my introduction to the director. Needless to say, I was massively excited to get my eyeballs all over it.
Wiener-Dog is a film comprised of four different stories connected by out titular canine. The similarities between all the vignettes is an obvious quirkiness and an underlying sadness. The film opens with the dog in a pet store kennel as the credits play over it with ambient sound before we are introduced to our first story, a father bringing home the wiener dog for his son. The boy, Remi, is a cancer survivor and his father brings home the dog as almost a reward for living, much to the chagrin of his mother (Julie Delpy) who has very dark thought about what could be the worst possible outcome of the situation. Tragically even funnier, Remi’s mother is a blunt woman who doesn’t cut corners or sugarcoat any answers to his questions about life and death leading to some hilarious moments.
The next piece of the Wiener-Dog’s story is our continuation of Welcome To The Dollhouse, this time around Dawn Wiener being played by indie darling and personal favorite Greta Gerwig as Heather Matarazzo declined to return. The segment starts with Dawn stealing the dog from the veterinarian office, which ties it to the last piece. Taking it home and naming it Doody, Dawn later comes across and old acquaintance, Brandon, who we remember from the previous film, played then by Brendan Sexton III. This time, Kieran Culkin steps into the road and asks Dawn to come with him on an enigmatic trip to Ohio, which kind of rekindles the relationship we saw back in the 1995 movie.
The third story maybe the most depressing in tone, as it follows a screenwriter played by Danny Devito, who had written a successful film decades back but now struggles to get a phone call from his agent. He spends his days sleepwalking through his teaching job and walking his wiener dog, hoping for that big break to roll around again until life pushes him a little too far. This leads into the final story, revolving around Ellen Burstyn as a cantankerous old woman whose granddaughter drops by with her new artist boyfriend for a visit that is most likely going to come with a price tag attached. The four stories end up being an encompassing of the dog’s life with a lot of odd human interaction around it.
As I said before, A Todd Solondz film is a Todd Solondz film. He’s not looking to sway anybody who doesn’t appreciate his work; he’s just making the stories that appeal to him. His writing has a quirky hilarity to it that has an underlying piece of tragedy to it stemming from major individual traits, which are exhibited in each of these pieces. Each character plays their parts out within the umbrella of this, kind of leading with their emotions. Delpy’s explanations of life and death to her young and curious son come across as completely harsh and soul crushing but out of a place of love. Dawn Wiener’s good natured attitude leads her headstrong into rekindling a friendship that is shaky at best. DeVito’s character track is based on the writer’s classic storytelling progression of “what if” and “then what”, which is slightly ironic for this individual. The final story also plays a bit on that as well as themes of estranged family and past regrets. Solondz, at times, satirizes life but there are many places where the true reality pokes through.
I thought it was very interesting that the film was shot by Edward Lachman, known for shooting gorgeous films like The Virgin Suicides, A Prairie Home Companion and this year nominated for Todd Haynes’ Carol. The master cinematographer, who had worked on Solondz previous film Life During Wartime, had an interesting shift in films that I had a chuckle at. He went from shooting Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara in the soft light of a restaurant booth to panning over puddles of wiener dog diarrhea spread out down a street at one point. The craziest thing about that is the shot is still impeccable. For that to work you need a true genius behind the camera.
For those that are unfamiliar with this wholly original writer and director and his work, Wiener-Dog could be an interesting jumping point for a viewer, possibly more accessible than anything he’s brought out since that first film in 1995. Solondz scripts have an awkward antiseptic quality that plays out really well on screen, always leaving room for the dialogue to breathe and resonate with the audience for a beat. This encompasses qualities that have, in the past, drove viewers away but I’m still committed to this filmmaker’s vision and I’m excited to see what he’ll bring next. Wiener-Dog was a really solid film and I give it a four and a half out of five.