(USA, 90 min.)
Written and directed by Todd Solondz
Starring: Ellen Burstyn, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Kieran Culkin, Julie Delpy, Danny De Vito, Greta Gerwig, Tracy Letts, Hope the dog
Someone, please give Todd Solondz a bone. The Happiness and Life During Wartime director is at his cynically best in Wiener-Dog. It’s his most upbeat, uplifting, and joyous work, yet also his most sardonically bleak film to date. There are dog tricks and there are Dog Tricks, and Wiener is the top dog of bitchin’ black humour.
Wiener-Dog lets Solondz amuse the audience like a pup before he poops on the floor. The joy of Wiener-Dog is that the dog trainer invites the folks howling in the peanut gallery to stick their noses right in the film’s business and roll in it. The surprise, though, is that Wiener-Dog all but defies the audience to leave without a smile on their face. It’s an oddly life-affirming film in its own messed up and caustic way.
The film chronicles the life of one amiable dachshund and the chorus of humans he encounters during her rollercoaster ride of a life. The wiener dog, played by two pooches, headlines a terrific ensemble as the film bumps her from home to home in the most banal milieus Solondz can find in the USA, which DP Ed Lachmann drolly accentuates with good humour. The wiener dog, a cute, pudgy little sausage with stumpy legs, an inquisitive expression, and a joyously cheerful demeanour that feels totally out of whack with the Solondz oeuvre, begins the film when her first owner (that we see) ditches her at the pound. There, along with the other misfit puppies, she lives in a cage like a hamster.
Enter owner the second. Dave (Tracy Letts), a grumpy curmudgeon who buys the dog for his son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) as a reward to lift his spirits after kicking cancer. Remi names the wiener dog Wiener-Dog with that uncreative knack kids have—my siblings and I named my calico cat Callie without any regrets so I can’t complain—and he takes an instant liking to the canine sausage while his dad and mom (Julie Delpy) do not.
This first chapter of Wiener-Dog is an almost cruel set-up of Solondzian black humour. The initial act is easily the funniest section of the film and Wiener-Dog initially seems brighter than most of the director’s works. Has Solondz finally lightened up? Thankfully, the director denies the rose-tinted warmth one expects to see between the boy and his puppy.
Instead, Wiener-Dog looks at the bleak reality of owning a dog: they yap, they shred furniture, and they poop everywhere. The film sarcastically blends the sentimental sweetness of Remi’s love for Wiener-Dog with his parents’ disdain for the damn thing, like his mother’s darkly funny monologue in which she teaches her son about the value in spaying a pet by telling him a bedtime story about her childhood dog, Croissant, who died because she wasn’t fixed. A stray mutt, the kind with ticks and “venereal diseases like AIDS,” raped her (and all the squirrels in the area) and, as a result, she died. Nobody wants that for Wiener-Dog. (Except maybe Remi’s dad.)
Following some poop and complications that force Remi to confront the sad reality of death, Wiener-Dog enjoys the company of Dawn (Greta Gerwig), a dim but earnest veterinarian assistant. Dawn dubs the dachshund Doodie and takes her on a road trip with a creepy junkie from her high school days (Kieran Culkin). Dawn might be the best owner for the pooch with her selflessness and concern for her well-being, but as she speaks with the same lethargic disaffectedness of the characters in the first chapter, Gerwig creates a woman who doesn’t know what she wants, nor does she really seem to care. The film shows that Dawn and Remi’s parents are part of the same cult: members of a society that wants the companionship of a pet, but none of the responsibility that comes with keeping the damn thing alive.
The next two vignettes introduce significantly darker owners for the wiener dog: a hack screenwriter/college professor, Dave Schmerz (Danny De Vito), and, finally, a dying woman (Ellen Burstyn), who lovingly names the dog Cancer, which pretty much summarises her outlook on life. Wiener-Dog takes a very dark turn in its final chapters and Solondz accentuates the descent with a hilariously buoyant intermission that takes the dog on a tour of the USA to the twangy song “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog,” which trumpets the heroic canine and all her loveable quirks. The song deserves serious consideration for an Oscar nomination for its spot-on randomness, humour, and ability to shift tones and encapsulate the spirit of a movie in mere minutes.
After this celebration of the dog’s life, Solondz cuts deep with a satire on life’s futility, as Schmerz realises that his life was all for nothing, and a reflection on the brevity of one’s mortality as Nana confronts her own impending death. Burstyn’s final scene is among her best as Nana sees her life before her eyes and Solondz offer a richly ethereal pause that might be Wiener-Dog’s defining moment. As the cynicism of the film becomes amusingly suspended in this moment of magical realism, Solondz ultimately gets the thing that distinguishes humans from animals. Humans have consciousness whereas animals, despite the characters that they are, lack the capacity for internal thought. This rift makes Wiener-Dog/Doodie/Schmerzadoodle/Cancer so endearingly innocent and the humans of the film so realistically fallible. While humans can think, they often choose the paths of meanness and disobedience. A dog just follows her nose, but humans might not do the right thing if given the chance, although Wiener-Dog surprisingly affords the opportunity for repentance.
With each chapter of the film, however, Wiener-Dog builds a disarming emotional complexity that leaves the viewer with an unexpectedly moving reminder of the frailty of life as any spark can be snuffed out in an instant. The dark, cutting humour of Wiener-Dog invites the audience to laugh in the face of death as their mouths hang agape and tears roll from their eyes. Despite the cruelty of seeing a life cut short, and especially in such a violent, mundane manner, Wiener-Dog ends with a wonderful tribute to a spirit that endures. As Solondz’s career goes, Wiener-Dog might be in the running for best in show.
Wiener-Dog is now playing in Toronto at TIFF Bell Lightbox and opens in Ottawa at the ByTowne on August 26.