Film / Reviews

‘Wiener-Dog’: Todd Solondz is always painfully funny

by Giovanni Fazio

Trigger warning: I am about to discuss a Todd Solondz film.

Back in the 1990s, Solondz was one of a pack of up-and-coming American indie directors, along with the likes of Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith, Richard Linklater and Todd Haynes. After getting hyped wildly for his portraits of twisted “losers” in “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness”— one of the decade’s defining films — he slowly fell out of favor. In fact, you could probably trace the rise of the use of the word “comfortable” in American English — as in “I’m not comfortable with that” — over the arc of Solondz’ fall.

The consensus view of his work started to shift with 2001’s “Storytelling,” which featured a notorious scene with Robert Wisdom and Selma Blair, playing a college professor and student, using both the N- and F-words in a sexual context that seemed designed to make people’s heads explode. Where his portraits of soulless suburbia were once viewed as wickedly transgressive and slyly subversive, now that he trained his eye on issues of race and political correctness, Solondz was branded a misanthrope, a miserablist, a hater.

As far as I can see, he hasn’t changed a bit. Behind his slightly nerdy demeanor — thick-rimmed eyeglasses, button-down shirts, and shock of gray hair — lies the heart of a punk, someone who’s certain that society is filled to the brim with hypocrites, phonies, bullies, whack jobs and brown-nosers, seething with narcissism, self-loathing and toxic passive-aggression. For weeks now, people have been going crazy trying to figure out who in the world could have voted for Trump; Solondz viewers would not be surprised.

The brilliance of Solondz is his ability to make you laugh at the most inappropriate moments, then make you feel dirty about it one beat later. That’s certainly true of the director’s latest, “Wiener-Dog,” which features a cute little dachshund in the title role, though dog lovers expecting another “Marley and Me” will probably leave the cinema calling for the director’s head.

The film consists of four different stories, as the blameless Wiener-Dog is passed from one owner to the next. First up is Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) — introduced in an overhead shot that’s a clear parody of “Boyhood” — a young cancer survivor whose yuppie dad (Tracy Letts) thinks having a pet will be good for him. The life lessons Remi learns from his nervous mom (Julie Delpy) about discipline, spaying, and “putting to sleep,” however, are hardly reassuring.

Wiener-Dog is rescued from a cruel fate by veterinarian’s assistant Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), who seems to be the adult version of the protagonist in “Dollhouse,” herself cruelly nicknamed “Wiener dog.” She seems as clueless and needy as ever, and a chance encounter with an old flame (Kieran Culkin) sends her on a road trip to destinations unknown.

After a brief and hilarious intermission — which seems to be taking the piss out of Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight”— we find the dog now on the desk of a university film-school teacher (Danny DeVito), who seems to embody the old maxim, “Those who can’t, teach.” He agonizes over the screenplay he’s pitching to Hollywood and feels increasingly out of place with his millennial students who aspire to make films about superheroes or “identity.” The final chapter has Ellen Burstyn as a sour old woman near the end of her days who’s visited by her wayward granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) and her hipster artist boyfriend Fantasy (Michael James Shaw), who come seeking money.

Solondz’ portait of four different generations of people who feel cut-off and isolated wraps up with some gentle moralizing that wouldn’t feel out of place in an Eric Rohmer film: Don’t let yourself get trapped by the invisible bars of your life. But Solondz being Solondz, making a grand break with the past and embracing freedom is no sure thing either, as he ends the film with a sick joke that might make even John Waters wince. I laughed, but I suspect most people won’t be “comfortable” with it.