MOVIE REVIEW: Wiener-Dog
Commonly, there are only two general reactions to witnessing an elaborate intentional joke of dark comedy. You either admire the effort to relish the measured malice or you are appalled and disconnected to the sense of humor being exploited. There will be very little gray area between those reactions for Todd Solondz’s “Wiener-Dog.” Make no mistake. For lack of a better term, this is a filmmaker being an asshole on purpose because he can and he doesn’t care. You will either champion or loathe that supposed brilliance and brashness. Buyer beware, honest and true dog lovers need to stay far away from this film.
“Wiener-Dog” is an anthology that weaves through four storylines within the life span of an adopted and passed on female dachshund. Celebrated with folk balled interludes, our animal star assumes many names in his journey from “Motherfucker,” “Doody,” “Cancer,” and just plain “Wiener-Dog.” His ownership begins in an affluent upper crust household where a father named Danny (noted playwright Tracy Letts) surprises his cancer-surviving flutist son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) with the adopted dog as new companion. When you watch Danny and his negatively dispassionate wife Dina (Julie Delpy) indoctrinate Remi’s skewed views of the world through Wiener-Dog, you will see why it doesn’t work out.
Renamed Doody, the dog is rescued from being euthanized by a mousy vet clinic orderly named Dawn (Greta Gerwig) and nursed back to health. The lonely Dawn gravitates to the drug-addled Brandon (Kieran Culkin), a directionless former high school classmate of hers. The two hit the road together with Doody in tow for a cross-country trip of no consequence to visit Brandon’s brother and wife. A deliberately crude and hokey “intermission” sequence fast-forwards the dachshund to the ownership of Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), an anxious one-hit-wonder screenwriting professor in New York City on the edge of losing his job.
Throughout the film, the titular canine’s presence becomes less and less relevant. She is pushed into the background by the plights of the flawed and intolerable characters of her owners. Any semblance of a fraying thematic thread through the conduit vessel of a beloved pet is gone by the fourth and final segment. The film closes on a tangent surrounding an irascible grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) in assisted living being propositioned for money by a deadbeat granddaughter (Zosia Mamet, daughter of David) she hasn’t seen in years and her flamboyant artist fiancé (Michael Shaw). By the end of 90 minutes of ineffective eternity, certain idioms involving misery come to mind.
Know that all of the deplorable and insufferable characters and developments of “Wiener-Dog” are sharply by calculated design from Todd Solondz. The scheme is to lull you in with a blackened-yet-endearing first chapter with Remi that looks and feels like a hopeful and heartfelt pet story. Your beak is wet and you want more of that adorable pooch. Moving forward after first storyline, the waters are slowly poisoned as the film surgically disassembles your stolen trust with boredom and pretension to make the dog an afterthough. With Solondz’s provocative reputation in the genre of black comedy, you should see this anti-“Marley and Me” coming.
Polishes of virtuosity are answered by cheapened farce in “Wiener-Dog.” Deserved recognition can be found in the standout performances from DeVito and Burstyn that create slightly compelling personifications of life’s crises in short time. Secondly, few people in the world could make a slow-motion pillow fight set to DeBussy’s “Clair de Lune” or a long tracking shot showcasing the most artful display of feces ever on film look better than two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Edward Lachman. He paints the discomfort with immeasurable and lingering beauty. That’s where the skills and complements end.
To pull off dark comedy in a film, two keys are execution and message. Skim this list of the best (which includes Solondz’s “Happiness” near the top) and you will find scintillating examples that nailed those two keys. The proverbial middle finger has to have a point and the artists involved have to sell it.
Solondz enlists game performers and craftsmen that go the extra mile, but the film fails to compose a substantial ideal or moral to justify its roast. There are certainly awkward and delicious laughs to be had, but the narrative delivery is a mess of coreless pointlessness. The aforementioned character and scenario descriptions of “dispassionate,” “skewed,” “lonely,” “of no consequence,” “crude,” “hokey,” “less relevant,” “fraying,” and “ineffective” grow to typify the entire film itself, becoming self-aware badges of defiance and indifference that merit little value.
When you try to skewer contrivances with contrivances, you become contrived. Failing to make a joke can turn you into one instead. That’s what happens too often here. Todd Solondz is perfectly allowed to be the asshole with his own opinion. He seeks this incitement and welcomes the backlash as a victory. The trouble is audience members have assholes, opinions, and middle fingers too.
LESSON #1: CHILDREN OFFER THE MOST UNCONDITIONAL LOVE OF PETS—Through each chronicle chapter of “Wiener-Dog,” the owner of the dachshund gets older. Comparatively, the affection shared to and the value assigned to the dog goes down. Not everyone is fit to be a dog owner. Satire or not, the movie gets children’s love of pets right.
LESSON #2: THE QUESTIONABLE WAYS PEOPLE USE THEIR PETS—Dogs are celebrated as “man’s best friend.” Yet, like Lesson #1, the owners of this dog don’t always appreciate or get the most out of that companionship. A pet can be an afterthought or discarded possession. There is no greater comedic insult supporting this lesson than this film’s final moments. Grab your outrage pitchforks!