‘Wiener-Dog’: Sundance Review

Neither dog nor best friend.

Todd Solondz's latest revolves around a dachshund and her encounters with various dysfunctional suburbanites.

After six films in two decades, it would be a mistake to expect anything from Todd Solondz but the off-center, mordant, deadpan misanthropy he has always reliably delivered, and so it is with Wiener-Dog. A pic that might best be described as a suburban American version of Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar on under-prescribed anti-depressants, this morosely comic dog’s odyssey offers a view of modern life little different from what the sometimes inspired, reliably perverse writer-director has served up in the past. Its amusing title notwithstanding, this modestly scaled work will play to a small niche audience theatrically.

By embarking upon an episodic road movie, Solondz is able to create a miniature portrait of the modern American landscape, and it isn’t a pretty picture; but, then, it never would be, no matter what area nor what era he was dealing with, so corrosive is his view of human nature and how people conduct themselves. The saving grace with him is that his visions of individuals stuck in their own heads are sometimes so bracingly unexpected, twisted and startling that you can scarcely help but laugh and admire his originality, just as you can count yourself lucky to live in a neighborhood not known to him.

Wiener-Dog certainly has such moments, even if the overriding sense of futility and the expectation of always to expect the worst from people carry the day. The title character is a brown female dachshund, an agreeable pooch for whom life, as with Bresson’s donkey, is no picnic but a series of random incidents, some good, some not but mostly indifferent, entirely dependent upon whose pet she is at any given moment.

That her formative period is spent in an upscale home with a little boy who adores her is no guarantee of happiness. Wiener-Dog is so named by Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a 9-year-old cancer survivor, who loves the pooch all too well and finds her a companionable alternative to his brusque dad (Tracy Letts) and mother Dina (Julie Delpy), who is rather overly vivid in her descriptions of how girl dogs are “raped” by strays and what it means to be “put to sleep.” The skilled acting here sets the dire tone, and the fact that Wiener-Dog narrowly escapes the fate laid out by Mom aptly sets up reasonably bright expectations for what might be to come.

Unfortunately, most of the title character’s subsequent owners are more vacant and/or annoying than edifying; if all dogs are fated to the luck of the draw, Wiener-Dog pulls a weak hand. First comes Dawn Wiener, a character initially seen — not that it makes any difference here — in Solondz’s debut Welcome to the Dollhouse 21 years ago and now played by Greta Gerwig. Leading an aimless life and equipped with an imagination that leads her to name her new pet “Doody,” she sets out on a road trip with a guy from her past who suddenly turns up, Brandon (Kieran Culkin), a dawdling, aimless type with nothing interesting to say.

If Dawn had known where they were headed, she might have had second thoughts, as they soon arrive in a boring town called home by Brandon’s brother Tommy (Connor Long) and wife April (Bridget Brown), a mentally disabled couple who provoke questions from Dawn about their reproductive capabilities. Mixed in here are three hitchhiking Mariachi singers, fully decked out in Mexican wardrobe in deepest Middle America, who recite a litany of complaints about how stifling, boring and depressing life north of the border is and how they can’t wait to return to their homeland. Donald Trump would sign these guys up at once as campaign entertainers.

Along with the viewer, Wiener-Dog is spared any further time in the Heartland once she’s taken in by the terminally depressed Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a one-time successful screenwriter now limited to teaching the subject in New York City and spending most of his waking hours obsessing over getting his agent on the phone and fantasizing about scoring a huge smash with his latest script.

DeVito delivers a characterization of scary self-absorption and scarcely supressed anger; living in a tiny apartment and with a quickly unraveling connection to the real world, Schmerz comes off as something like an elderly uncle to Travis Bickle, an unpredictable loner who could pop at any time.

Schmerz takes Wiener-Dog around town with him, but one of the script’s real shortcomings lies in how the lead character becomes increasingly marginalized as the story lurches along, to the point where she’s more of an ornament than a figure of any central importance either dramatically or to her master of the moment.

Her next and final owner is even older, the cantankerous Nana (Ellen Burstyn), a suburban shut-in whose flaky granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) turns up with a flamboyantly gruff and self-absorbed black artist boyfriend named Fantasy (Michael Shaw) to request some money.

The sheer obliviousness to anything beyond themselves projected by both Nana and Fantasy is grimly funny, but Solondz saves his most inspired stroke for last, a striking visualization of Nana’s too-late perception of how things could have been different, and better, in her life. These last minutes are the best in the film and by far the most visually dazzling, even though Ed Lachman’s cinematography throughout stands as a model of subtle and elegant compositional skill tested by what are, for the most part, deliberately banal settings.

Life may be as unfair and arbitrary as Solondz portrays it, but it is arguably more diverse in its moods and its ups and downs. The pic may not be a dog, but nor is it likely to become anyone’s best friend.

Production: Annapurna Pictures, Killer Films
Cast: Ellen Burstyn, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Kieran Culkin, Julie Delpy, Danny DeVito, Greta Gerwig, Tracy Letts, Zosia Mamet, Connor Long, Bridget Brown, Michael Shaw
Director-screenwriter: Todd Solondz
Producers: Megan Ellison, Christine Vachon
Executive producer: David Hinojosa
Director of photography: Ed Lachman
Production designer: Akin McKenzie
Costume designer: Amela Baksic
Editor: Kevin Messman
Music: Nathan Larson, James Lavino
Casting: Jessica Daniels

Not rated, 88 minutes