Monday, July 18, 2016
Acclaimed writer/director Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse; Happiness) returns with another pitch-black examination of the human condition, this time through the eyes of a dachshund as it moves from owner to owner.
Wiener-Dog is a story told in four parts.
After adopting the dog, a young, naive boy (Keaton Nigel Cooke) gets an education in mortality from his dysfunctional parents (Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts). A severe bout of diarrhea forces the family to give the dog up.
Dawn (Greta Gerwig), a veterinarian's assistant, steals the dog away from the clinic after nursing it back to health. One day she reunites with an old friend named Brandon (Kieran Culkin), and the two set off on a road trip to score drugs. The trip ultimately leads them to the home of Brandon's brother Tommy (Connor Long) and his wife April (Bridget Brown). It's there that Brandon informs Tommy of their father's death. In the wake of this news (and essentially all but a girlfriend to Brandon), Dawn realizes that Tommy and April need a furry friend more than she does at the moment. She leaves the dog with them on the way out of town.
Some time later, the dachshund winds up in New York City under the care of a disillusioned screenwriting professor named Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito). Schmerz achieved success in Hollywood thirty years ago with the release of a comedy he hated. In the present day, Schmerz's forays into Hollywood prove fruitless. He's disrespected by his students and underappreciated by the administration at his institution. He's stuck in an existential rut. That is, until he eyes his dog and asks "What if..?"
The titular puppy finds a home with a curmudgeonly old lady (Ellen Burstyn). She's visited by her granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) and her boyfriend Fantasy (Michael James Shaw). Fantasy is a controversial installation artist, and so Zoe begs her grandmother for money for Fantasy's latest project. Nana hesitantly turns over the money and is later confronted by a dozen projections of her younger self. "This is you if you had continued to play the piano," says one angelic voice. "And this is you if you if you had left bigger tips," says another. This segment culminates the entire 90-minute picture in one extremely bleak, unexpected moment.
The movie ends in a rather sobering place when you think about what each of these four stories and their mascot represent. That said, It's still a place where you'll have trouble stifling bewildered chuckles. Solondz's brand of black humor proves endearing here because the characters are so well-realized and that dog is just so darn cute. When I walked out of the theater afterwards, I felt like my cinematic palette had been cleansed.
Wiener-Dog is a well-rounded, well-acted ensemble flick whose cynical outlook actually feels refreshing after a steady diet of safe big-budget blockbusters. This movie isn't for everyone (especially not kids!); but if you appreciate offbeat comedies, you'll get a kick out of it.