Writer/director Todd Solondz’s latest is a series of (mostly) disconnected short films, all loosely tied together through a female dachshund that seemingly changes owners throughout the runtime. The connection does go a bit further than that, however. Wiener-Dog is purely driven by death and mortality, evidenced in the way the film itself is born and ages its way through the four protagonists of its four principle sections (split in two by a hilarious intermission that suggests we stop caring how this dachshund keeps changing hands).
First comes childhood, and Solondz sharply uses the dog (a gift from a young cancer survivor’s dad) as an entry point into the way that parents lie and hide the truth of mortality from kids. Solondz is a master of making the familiar unfamiliar – he strips off the top layer of situations and words and exchanges that we see as banal and makes us realize how weird everything truly is. Julie Delpy (who plays the kid’s mom) tells an absurd (and frankly, brutal) story about a dog rapist in order to justify the pain and discomfort they caused “Wiener-Dog” (who changes names throughout the film) when they took her to be spayed. Death is everywhere in Wiener-Dog, and it’s no coincidence that the mother literally rips the potential for new life from the dachshund.
The second segment follows Dawn (Greta Gerwig, brilliant as always) through young adulthood, banality, and her search for companionship (another theme of Wiener-Dog, evidenced by Dawn cuddling the dog and rocking her to sleep as though the dachshund were her own child). The third stars Danny DeVito as Dave Schmerz, a middle-aged screenwriting professor suffering a career and life crisis due to his poor health and constant veiled rejection from his agent. Much, if not all, of Wiener-Dog is bleak and seemingly cynical in the way it renders monotonous sorrow and malaise pure brutal, but DeVito’s segment probably takes the cake. Throughout the film, Solondz continually finds a way to make even the smallest, most every-day “bad” occurrences gut wrenching. I can understand the claim that Dog is cynical, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. However, Solondz never laughs in the face of his characters’ misfortunes; all are cared for equally (well, at least his protagonists – some of the tertiary characters are certainly mined for laughs).
Some of the humor (black as night) verges on sadistic (see: the end of the picture), but it mostly works in its own banal, gross-out way. Wiener-Dog functions as a bleak and mordant meditation on death, as it itself moves towards its own death as the dachshund ends up with increasingly older owners, loneliness, and empathy, and it is the latter that makes the film resonate. Solondz shifts tones on a whim (in this regard the screenplay is a near-masterpiece) and forces our perspectives in the audience to shift with him without it ever feeling trite or gratuitous. The simplest introduction of a perfectly believable detail, or two, (the specifics of which I’ll leave out for spoilers’ sake) refocused my entire opinion on a particular character. This isn’t Solondz sadistically dragging his characters through the wringer, rather he delivers his particular brand of humanism while mining mordant humor from their misfortunes. As such, Wiener-Dog rings emotionally true, and the titular dachshund’s consistent misfortunes are a constant reminder that all life is tough and that its death (it is a dog, after all) will likely come much sooner than ours.