Todd Solondz has made a dog movie.
The man behind the uncomfortably brilliant Happiness, and many more challenging films since, has taken a cute sausage dog, put it on the road and followed it around various parts of America. The plot largely follows that outline, one which is typical of the “animal movie” genre usually aimed at kids. We follow the adorable pet from a pup in a rescue home through to his final home, and we meet a series of eccentric owners in-between.
We follow the adorable pet from a pup in a rescue home through to his final home, and we meet a series of eccentric owners in-between.
The characters aren’t just typical of the director’s protagonists from earlier films: in one case we actually see a character from an earlier film resurrected on screen.
The first owner of the dachshund is a young boy recovering from cancer. His parents want him to “break” the dog in and learn about responsibilities, but he’s more interested in having fun, and names the puppy Wiener-Dog. When the boy feeds Wiener-Dog some of his granola bar, the results are predictably messy. With the dog set to be put down, a veterinary nurse (Greta Gerwig) takes pity on the poorly dog and takes it away to keep her company, caring for it until it is healthy again. She takes a road-trip with an old acquaintance she is in love with and decides to leave Wiener-Dog with her friend’s disabled brother, whom she knows will care for Wiener-Dog with his wife.
Then comes an intermission. An actual intermission, complete with messages to enjoy food and drink from the foyer.
Wiener-Dog then somehow ends up in the care of a struggling writer (Danny Devito), desperate to get his screenplay produced, but killing time as a film studies lecturer. He hates his job, is being messed around by his agent, and is loathed by most of his students. His mantra of “what if, what then?” has become a punchline, but is there a sting in the tail?
Finally we see an old woman (Ellen Burstyn), towards the end of her life, caring as best as she can for Wiener-Dog. Her granddaughter regularly visits, but usually comes looking for money. As the woman confronts her own mortality, so does Wiener-Dog.
There are some extraordinary moments peppered throughout this film. Even if they don’t instantly connect with one another, you feel that by the end they do. Even if you can’t fully take in the bigger picture, the vignettes within are unmissable.
Julie Delpy, who plays the mum of the young boy in the first section, has some outstandingly dark lines to deliver. They are drenched in the black comedy that Solondz is famous for, that will leave you shuffling uncomfortable in you seat, unsure if you should be laughing or walking out in disgust. At one point she calmly tells her son that her own dog, that she had as a child, was repeatedly raped by a stray with straggly black hair called Mohammed. Not only that, but the rabid sex pest even had his way with squirrels. Delpy’s deadpan delivery is remarkable, and for the record, you should remain firmly planted in your seat. And laughing your head off.
Greta Gerwig takes on the role of Dawn Wiener, whom we have seen in Welcome to the Dollhouse as a school kid, and her life has turned out pretty much as we expected. This, combined with Danny Devito’s character, who is almost certainly an extension of the director himself, as well as the final more contemplative section of the movie, leave us with a sense that the director can’t help but take stock through the adventures of Wiener-Dog.
If you’re familiar with the director’s earlier work, you’ll have that uneasy feeling of something hideous happening at any given moment. When characters peer round corners or walk into a room, we never quite know what they will be greeted by. It’s a technique that leaves you wrong-footed even when the most mundane outcome is presented to you.
Just as with Happiness, you’ll feel like you’ve seen a great film, but that you hate yourself for enjoying it. Solondz can make you feel awful about banality, and at the same time enjoy some of the most horrific actions imaginable.
You’ll hate yourself for enjoying it.
Wiener-Dog is one of the best films out this year, even if it is one of the most confrontational.
Wiener-Dog will be shown as part of Sundance Film Festival: London. For tickets and more information visit: Picturehouse Central.