Todd Solondz doesn’t make movies to uplift us with cozy love for our fellow man. From Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) through Happiness (1998), Storytelling (2001), Palindromes (2004) and Life During Wartime (2009), Solondz finds the ties that bind in fear, anxiety, depression, perversion, pedophilia, statutory rape, suicide and murder. In other words, Disney won’t be making an animated musical of his work any time soon.
Which brings us to Wiener-Dog, the tale of a brown female dachshund who moves randomly through life and a series of owners, finding only indifference and cruelty along the way. It’s true, the pet is loved by Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a nine-year-old cancer patient whose parents, played by a brutally funny Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy, would never fit the category of dog’s best friend. Then there’s Dawn Wiener, the 12-year-old misfit who was portrayed by Heather Matarazzo in Dollhouse and here, as a supposed grown-up, by Greta Gerwig. Dawn and her junkie boyfriend (Kieran Culkin) take the dog on a road tip where they meet his brother and sister in law, both of whom have Down syndrome. They’re the film ‘s most empathetic characters.
Dawn names the pooch “Doody,” presumably for her prodigious bowel movements. (One sequence, a virtual montage of dog shit, is set to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune”). Then it’s onto Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a film professor in New York reduced to teaching screenwriting to students who hold him in contempt. The dog’s final owner is the blind, bitchy Nana (a scary good Ellen Burstyn), a bitter troll being hit up for cash by her granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) if only for the care and feeding of her black artist boyfriend (Michael Shaw).
Who’s caring for Wiener-Dog, who Nana casually refers to as “Cancer”? Not Solondz, which ends his film’s parallels to the 1966 Robert Bresson classic Au Hasard, Balthazar, in which a stoic donkey became the locus for defining human heartlessness. Bresson found power and poetry in his tale; Solondz finds only the same meal of misery he’s been dishing out for years. Shot with a keen eye for glints of beauty by the great Ed Lachman (Carol, Far From Heaven), the movie mines only a few veins of Solondz’s former gift for satiric grit and grace. Life has clearly kicked the filmmaker in the teeth. But what happens to the film’s title character — and the audience — shouldn’t happen to a dog.