Wiener-Dog - this film tells several stories featuring people who find their life inspired or changed by one particular dachshund, who seems to be spreading comfort and joy.
"Wiener-Dog is a Solondz film through and through – there's still no-one daring to be quite so acerbic and inhumane towards his characters while keeping them grounded in a sense of relatable experience." | Photo: Linda Callerus

The irascible Todd Solondz further expands his cinematic universe with a portmanteau ensemble piece featuring a semi-sequel to his breakthrough growing pains saga Welcome To The Dollhouse as one of four uneven episodes. Not unlike Bret Easton Ellis' continued blurring and revision of past glories, the characters he returns to are not necessarily the same people we witnessed previously, and are played by different performers (in a more successful adaptation than he managed with tepid Happiness companion Life During Wartime). Even the dogs are shuffled around like a deck of cards – both in terms of the canine actors used and their characters' fates – in ways that seem to signify how little it matters who is what and playing whom – they are all equally disposable and special at once. In a Solondz film, the pawns (onscreen and in the audience) are put through their paces for his own sadistic glee but also for universal catharsis; as with his partial return to form Dark Horse, there's a mature levity to much of the material that could surprise sceptics as much as disappoint diehards.

Wiener-Dog is intended as a life-lesson playmate for in-remission pre-teen Remy, a gift from his alpha male father that sits ill at ease with his suburbanite mother, leading to domestic division and uncomfortable brushes with the reality of modern pet care. Doody is reprieved from the vet's needle of death by the hopelessly altruistic Dawn Wiener, leading to a reconciliation with a high-school bully that could lead to old wounds being healed. Meanwhile, down-at-heel scriptwriter-cum-Professor Schmerz is stuck between past glories and present misanthropy and an elderly artiste is faced with mortality through her own callous actions.

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If it sounds like there's less meat on the bones of the last two sections of this narrative, that's because there is; the film sags in the middle – not unlike its eponymous heroine – after hitting a genuinely emotional career-high of uncharacteristic poignancy and grace for Solondz, via Kieran Culkin's interplay with some brilliant Down's syndrome actors Bridget Brown and Connor Long. Of course, the rascally writer-director follows up with the film's most indulgent fourth wall-breaking prank – of which there are arguably a few - but not unlike the gross-out Farrelly Brothers-style punchlines to the first and last segments, it feels engineered for a cheap laugh at the expense of the film's intended high-falutin' viewers, not least in its duration (perhaps another reference to the beyond-reason human engineering of the dachshund's physicality – he has cruel fun with the dogs' form throughout).

Solondz's dialogue is as ripe as ever – Julie Delpy's character contradicts her maternal concern that her son is fit to look after another being through her amusingly insensitive words of wisdom, while the outwardly stern Tracy Letts – the blistering bard of Friedkin's Bug and Killer Joe among others – punctures paternal machismo wonderfully through his pathetic posturing and empty chest-beating. Greta Gerwig elicits genuine sympathy for perhaps the first time since becoming an insufferable indie darling as Dollhouse's Dawn Wiener, her optimistic exchanges with Culkin's monosyllabic drug-abuser charged with real longing and nuance in a way her recent series of one-note performances in Noah Baumbach flicks suggested may have been beyond her.

As in Happiness, the old guard do the most with the thinnest material – Danny DeVito is perfectly cast as the schlubbily negative Schmerz, his childish ego and bitter self-centredness somehow offset by just the right amount of pathos, his defiance echoing Jon Lovitz's scene-setting reject from Happiness' opening. Topping it all off is Ellen Burstyn's nameless art-icon grandma, her world-weariness brilliantly tempered by her eventual return to a childlike sense of regret. What she achieves from behind blackout visor and zimmer-frame is a masterclass in coiled absurdity and empathetic ennui.

Sadly the stories backing these latter characters don't do them justice, with the worlds of cinema students and art-snobs hardly original targets for Solondz ire – maybe if he had something new to say about these empty vessels populating his own circles these stories would come to life a little more, but it's probably telling that the dogs play ever-smaller roles in these episodes. It feels like he's shoehorning the dogs into stories he already had, rather than observing them and the other characters orbiting around each other, making the film's ill-natured tail-end come off as obligatory, despite the pleasingly appropriate transition from one generation to the next via the narrative torch-passing.

Interestingly, the keen eye the director has always shown for composing a satirically soap opera-tinged shot gives way as the film progresses to a more lived-in, naturalistic style – especially with the shift from suburban lawns to urban angst – and his use of garish colour and tell-tale mise-en-scene remains as sharp as ever (although the copy of Roots on a dreadlocked college dean's bookshelf is perhaps a low blow). Similarly, his continued use of ironically chirpy music works well in some scenes but becomes grating in others – the bittersweet odyssey of the second tale is undercut by Doody's cooing theme song – and the emphasis on minorities stuck in their stereotypes (via a rootless Mariachi family and a musclebound African-American celebrity named Fantasy) feels like provocation for its own sake. Particularly disappointing is how little he has to say about man's best friend, but perhaps this is part of the point – the dog is always secondary to selfishness.

For better and worse, Wiener-Dog is a Solondz film through and through – there's still no-one daring to be quite so acerbic and inhumane towards his characters while keeping them grounded in a sense of relatable experience; it's Robert Altman by way of early John Waters. That he manages to cover so much ground in under 90 minutes is to be commended, although as with Storytelling – another lopsided experiment in segmentation – he could still stand to trim the fat here and there. If the different episodes aren't quite as consistent as this approach demands, perhaps this is self-reflective of his overall worldview – he's forever senselessly punishing us as much as his characters (and perhaps himself), and for this we should all be thankful.

Reviewed on: 15 Aug 2016
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Portmanteau film about the owners of a dachshund.
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Director: Todd Solondz

Writer: Todd Solondz

Starring: Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Greta Gerwig, Ellen Burstyn, Zosia Mamet, Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts, Michael James Shaw, Kett Turton, Devin Druid, Samrat Chakrabarti, Jen Ponton, Trey Gerrald, Bridget Brown, Scott Martin

Year: 2016

Runtime: 88 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US

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