Wiener-Dog (2016) Film Review, a movie directed by Todd Solondz, and starring Greta Gerwig, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Tracy Letts, Julie Delpy, Kieran Culkin, Rigoberto Garcia, Connor Long, Bridget Brown, Charlie Tahan, and Danny DeVito.
Wiener-Dog is the newest entry into Todd Solondz’s series of films featuring the character of Dawn Wiener. While Wiener-Dog’s bark is softer than some of Solondz’s previous films, its has just as many teeth in its bite.
Director Todd Solondz’s latest film, Wiener-Dog, is a misanthropic and shockingly hilarious journey through the eyes of a repeatedly rehomed dachshund. Like a lot of Solondz’s films, Wiener-Dog features a mixed cast of newcomers along with several veteran actors, such as Julie Delpy, Danny DeVito, and Greta Gerwig. Each of the film’s four segments are connected by the titular character, an adult dachshund who acts as a less of a catalyst in the lives of her owners, and more as a passive participant, and as a witness to the grim reality of suburban American life that plays out in the narrative arcs of the central characters.
Fans of Solondz’s previous work will rejoice at the return of Dawn Wiener, the protagonist of Solondz’s 1995 film, Welcome to the Dollhouse. While audiences don’t necessarily need to be familiar with the filmography of Solondz to fully appreciate the gas station reconnection and subsequent budding relationship of Dawn and Brandon, those who have seen Welcome to the Dollhouse (and, without spoiling anything major, the beginning of Solondz’s 2004 film, Palindromes) might find themselves a little heartbroken over the life that Dawn has been given. However, the reality of Dawn’s adulthood and the futility of middle-class American life is Solondz’s central thesis statement.
The narrative arc of Wiener-Dog is effectively a life-death-rebirth cycle. The film’s thematic structure seems mirrored along its musical intermission, whereas the questions raised by the characters in first half are given their misanthropic answers in the scenarios of the second half. One recurring theme in Solondz’s work that appears frequently throughout Wiener-Dog is the idea of unwanted sterilization. In one of the film’s earliest and most jaw-dropping scenes, Julie Delpy shines as Dina as she responds to her son’s inquiry about why their dachshund has been spayed with a grisly anecdote about the fate her childhood poodle faced after becoming pregnant. The notion of sterility is addressed again when, in the second sequence of the film, Dawn discovers that Brandon’s brother and his wife, who both have Downs Syndrome, have been sterilized against their will to prevent others from being burdened by their potential offspring.
The film’s musical intermission is very telling about Solondz’s artistic intent, as it seems to be a statement on self-sterilization in creative work. Through Wiener-Dog, Solondz is responding to past criticisms of the characteristic misanthropy in his films by giving us his unique interpretation of a solution to the demands of the audience to be continuously amused and entertained by films. Through “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog”, a Spaghetti Western-inspired musical number written by Tony Award winner Mark Shaiman, Solondz gives us a scowling respite from the bleak lives of his characters.
One of the best and most real arcs of the film is the third segment, featuring Danny DeVito as Dave Schmerz, a screenwriting professor on the brink of losing his job at a prestigious New York university where he teaches students who are both unwilling to listen and ungrateful for his advice. His portrayal of Schmerz is a refreshing reminder of DeVito’s true artistic range for those who are used to seeing him as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia‘s boorish man creature, Frank.
It’s more than a little obvious that Schmerz is effectively a stand-in for Solondz himself, and that the frustrations of Schmerz at dealing with smug undergrad artists could possibly be a statement from Solondz on the self-absorbed arrogance of some artists and filmmakers. Anyone who has ever taught or attended an undergraduate film program will tell you that his depictions of the overwhelmingly socially-aware, and yet, still incredibly self-unaware, and at times, outright delusional attitude of college film students is spot-on accurate. One of these eye-rolling film school students, played by Clara Mamet, is credited as Lina, which could possibly be read as a dig at Lena Dunham’s navel-gazey adventures of highly privileged twenty-somethings in her HBO series Girls.
More sensitive audience members might be turned off by some of the scatological and other gruesome visuals in the film. Some critics might even draw comparisons between the works of Solondz, and those of cult film demigod, John Waters. However, whereas Waters believes in the fun that comes from filth for the sake of filth, Solondz handles disgust in a way that goes beyond our basic instincts of repulsion. What makes Solondz unique as an auteur is his ability to subvert the most socially uncomfortable and visually repulsive elements of his films into something darkly hilarious, and at times, genuinely touching and human. This ability to transform disgust into truth is at the heart of Solondz’s creative genius.
People who have seen 1998’s Happiness will know that Solondz doesn’t shy away from ending his films with an element of brutality. The audience’s craving for an ending with a positive emotional resolution is mocked by the film’s gasp-inducing, and somehow, horrifyingly funny final sequences. This ending brings the film’s narrative arc fully from childhood to death, and finally, into a vulgar rebirth through the body of the dog itself.
Weiner-Dog isn’t a film for optimists. However, if you’re a fan of dark satires on contemporary American life, if you’re an unapologetic realist looking for a good grumble, or even if you’re just a cat person, this film is worth checking out.’
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