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After Life During Wartime and Dark Horse—Palindromes is more of a failed-experiment outlier—it began to seem as if Todd Solondz had lost his way. The typically execrable characters whom the writer-director managed to make human and humorous were now just plain execrable; you couldn’t wring a drop of grin-inducing ink out of his darkest jokes. Solondz appeared determined to deepen his filmography’s cesspool and in the process, made the confusing decision to pluck from Hollywood’s casting pool as well, choosing several actors to play literally the same characters, whether in the same movie (2004’s Palindromes) or in a sequel (2009’s Life During Wartime, his follow-up to 1998’s Happiness).
Wiener-Dog, however, shows Solondz returning to his more warmly black-hearted roots, even though it again includes a returning character: Dawn Wiener, the unfortunate protagonist of 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse. She’s now played by Greta Gerwig and has become a veterinarian, though she’s still a mess of awkward nerves. But we’ll get to her in a minute.
The briskly paced film opens with the titular dog being surrendered to a shelter. She’s a sweet dachshund, quiet and looking slightly bewildered as she checks out her small kennel. She’s soon claimed by an impatient man (Tracy Letts) for his son, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke, who’s introduced laying in the grass in the unmistakable Boyhood one-sheet pose). Remi’s mother, Dina (Julie Delpy), is furious over the surprise and immediately takes Wiener-Dog to be spayed. After Remi’s endless questions about the procedure, she tells him that she once had a poodle who got depressed after the pooch was knocked up. The father? “Turns out, she was raped,” Dina says. “He was called… Mohammed. It went on raping. Raping.”
The conversation is totally taboo. And totally hilarious.
So is a slow-mo pan of Wiener-Dog’s epic diarrhea episode after Remi feeds her a granola bar as his parents are off at yoga. (“You need to do your body maintenance,” Remi says.) The sequence, by the way, is set to “Clair de Lune.”
Wiener-Dog is not long for the yogis’ world, however. Dad takes her to Dawn’s clinic to be put down.
But before you can shed a tear, Dawn grabs the dog and takes off like a bank robber. She renames her new dog Doody (Doody will also later assume the name Cancer) and earnestly tries to get a dirtbag former classmate (Kieran Culkin) to like her (they reminisce about a boy he used to beat up). After a short sequence of events scored to a tinkly ballad with the lyrics “Dooo dee dooo dee dooo…,” the dog ends up with a couple with Down syndrome (Bridget Brown and Connor Long), then a depressed filmmaker/professor (Danny DeVito), and finally a bitter grandmother (Ellen Burstyn). Well, sorta finally.
Even though Wiener-Dog is only 90 minutes, Solondz includes an intermission that appears to have Quentin Tarantino as its target. The dog trots through multiple landscapes, including a no-man’s-land blizzard, while a decidedly old-tyme Western song bellows “Wiener-Dog! Wiener-Dog!” But it’s a storytelling cheat, too: We get no indication of how the dog got passed on to its next owner.
DeVito’s chapter is the weakest one, with again no hint as to how Wiener-Dog left the character’s ownership. Then the penultimate segment brings on the assholes, including Burstyn’s Nana. Her granddaughter, Zoe (Zosia Mamet, insufferable in Girls), and the granddaughter’s boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael Shaw)—an “audio sculpturist” who’s so insufferable he should be on Girls—visit Nana, but their drop-in is strained if not downright hostile. Nana’s a jerk, her caregiver’s a jerk, and Zoe and Fantasy are art hipsters of the highest rank.
Still, the tense silence in that living room leaves you squirming (and impatient with questions). There’s an odd cap to this plotline involving a spooky-looking young girl who brings out identical spooky-looking girls, each representing the life Nana could have had if, say, she had “liked other people” or “left bigger tips.”
This distraction leads to the end of Wiener-Dog/Doody/Cancer’s long journey, and although it’s not necessarily an unhappy one, Solondz fashions it to be bittersweet—and ridiculous. Thus you walk away from this tale feeling melancholy yet cheerful, which is the best mixed emotion a Solondz fan could want.
Wiener-Dog opens today at Atlantic Plumbing Cinema.