If you're familiar with the twisted, tragic universe that writer-director Todd Solondz has created with eight features over 27 years, you may care to read on. I have good news. On the other hand, if you just asked yourself, Todd who?, you might want to skip to Margot's review. It's doubtful you'll be buying a ticket to Wiener-Dog.
Solondz is a genre unto himself, and this is the auteur at his most audacious and challenging. The film is actually a series of four darkly comic vignettes, linked only by the presence of the eponymous female dachshund. Well, the dog and the ever-present specter of death.
Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy anchor the first chapter as the bickering parents of a boy named Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), who's survived an unnamed illness. The casting is dead-on. These folks make most dysfunctional movie families look like the Cleavers.
One day, Remi's father brings the pet home, and the child christens it Wiener-Dog (coincidentally, the nickname of Dawn Wiener in Solondz's 1995 Welcome to the Dollhouse). Highlights of this segment include a tracking shot of doggie diarrhea choreographed by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Edward Lachman (Carol) and set to Debussy's "Clair de lune."
The boy has given the dog a granola bar that made him sick. Dad decides euthanasia is next on the pet's menu, prompting a mother-son discussion of mortality that, besides being hilarious, flips a cliché on its head. "Nature doesn't care about them," Delpy explains. "We're dogs' only friend."
Who should intercept the doomed dachshund before the vet can send him to heaven but Dawn Wiener herself, now a veterinarian aide played by Greta Gerwig. Having grown up to be Greta Gerwig, the once-outcast Dawn is more popular with the neighborhood boys these days. When she bumps into former classmate Brandon (Kieran Culkin), he invites her on a ride to score drugs and visit his brother (Connor Long), who has Down syndrome. The two share a touching, gut-busting scene throughout which Brandon attempts to explain that their father has died, and his brother repeatedly asks him whether he's stopped drinking.
Next, we meet frustrated film professor Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito). You'll notice the central characters get older with each successive vignette. Aging — and becoming irrelevant — is what DeVito's chapter is about. His students' mockery drives Schmerz to the brink. And then over it. Not long after he begins making Wiener-Dog wear tiny dresses, our jaws drop as we watch a bomb squad slowly approach the dog, now wrapped in a suicide vest.
But the oddest and most heartrending segments are still to come. Ellen Burstyn plays a bitter invalid who hides behind huge black sunglasses and renames the canine Cancer. She's visited by a twitchy granddaughter (Zosia Mamet), who brings along her artist boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael James Shaw). "Don't kid yourself," the old woman admonishes, after her spacey guest claims not to be concerned about lacking direction because she's still young.
The granddaughter then describes Fantasy's work as a controversial fusion of taxidermy and robotics that isn't derivative of Damien Hirst. "Fuck Damien Hirst," adds Fantasy. That's incredibly funny stuff, assuming you know who Hirst is — google him if you don't. The punch line is the film's final image, Fantasy's latest work and the most bizarre visual in Solondz's oeuvre. Prepare to be freaked out.
And prepare for 90 minutes of idiosyncratic and surprising cinema. The filmmaker has a reputation for a misanthropic worldview, a loathing for suburbia, and obsessions with perversion and futility. Solondz's new work reflects those themes, but it also reveals empathy, almost warmth, and that's a first. Don't kid yourself: You can teach an old dog new tricks.