Starring: Greta Gerwig, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Tracy Letts, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Julie Delpy
Director: Todd Solondz
Todd Solondz’s latest cheerful jaunt through the meadows of the suppressed, obsessed and depressed opens with ten-year-old boy Remi lovingly fooling around with his new pet; a sausage dog (or Dachshund for those in the know) named Wiener. However, Remi’s anxiety shredded father and neurotically pretentious mother quickly come to despise the animal as it pukes and craps its way throughout their precious nuclear family home. One incident too many and the sad-eyed little creature is on his way to the animal sanctuary to be put to sleep. During Wiener’s stay of execution at the vets, carefree young assistant Dina (Delpy) smuggles the homeless mutt back to her apartment where she renames him Doody. Now repeat that introduction five times and you have the entire plot of Wiener Dog. The animal gets passed from person to person as snippets of each owner’s life are portrayed with ever-increasing despair and gloominess.
The premise that the eponymous dog somehow links the characters together is at best tenuous. Admittedly, each character does indeed own the dog but it has no bearing on the story whatsoever. It seems much more likely that Solondz had a number of short ideas milling around his brain and decided to link them together in the quickest way possible. Attempting to disguise the shakiness of these associations by naming the film after the canine bond, allowing him to present the idea as a coherent whole may seem rather clever, but unfortunately it doesn’t actually work.
This total disjoint between the storylines is the downfall of the film. Each time the dog passes owners (at times Solondz doesn’t bother to explain the transition whatsoever) the audience finds themselves in a completely new environment with a totally new set of characters. It becomes impossible to engage with a character before they’ve been replaced by another. Another failure is that, apart from Danny DeVito’s university lecturer Dave Schmerz who at least has a smidgen of neglected charm, all leads are all incredibly formless and shallow.
As with all Solondz films, Wiener Dog attempts to survive purely on dysfunctional characters trying to gain traction against a backdrop of typical social difficulty, mental illness and extreme situations. The comedy here is meant to be awkward yet feels desperate. An entire family of Down Syndrome children, jokes about a stray rapist dog called Muhammad, even the dogs various monikers; Cancer, Doody, Wiener. It’s all very schoolyard humour yet totally lacks the vicious crack of on-the-edge comedy. Whereas a dog called Cancer would very likely be hilarious in South Park, here it just feels tasteless.
There is a single scene towards the end when hateful old blind lady Nana (Burstyn) grumpily limps into her garden and comes face to face with all the different people she could have been if she had made different choices. It’s a wonderful event, touched with heart-breaking regret and sadness, yet conversely this makes the rest of the film all the more frustrating, knowing Solondz is capable of writing such scenes.
The age old maxim that Americans just don’t do irony is probably a little unfair (just google ’10 best Homer Simpson quotes’) but Solondz is not doing his fellow countrymen any favours here. Wiener Dog is at best boring and at worst cheaply unsavoury. Even the final scene, which is a frantic closing attempt at attention-seeking disagreeability, simply acts as a refreshing reminder that it’s nearly time for the credits.
2 / 10