Directed by Todd Solondz
Opens June 24
Wiener-Dog is something of a misnomer for Todd Solondz’s eighth feature, which relates four vignettes concerned far more with people—a child recovering from chemotherapy; Dawn and Brandon from Solondz’ breakthrough Welcome to the Dollhouse, years later; a frustrated screenwriter/professor; and a wealthy older woman and her financially exploitative relation—than with animals. The dog enters the ownership of each, but Au Hasard Balthazar this is not: the dog is a key player in the first story but essentially an arbitrary device to link Solondz’s real subjects (and a punchline for the coda). This bait-and-switch is acknowledged at the midway point, during an “intermission” in which the dog runs through various locales and urges viewers to get popcorn from the lobby.
At his best, Solondz examines the depravity of apparent anomalies and locates both the humanity within them and also the perversions within the ostensibly well-adjusted. It is a difficult tightrope act, because falling one way results in cloying miserablism while leaning too far in the other direction resembles condescension, even contempt. Wiener-Dog oscillates wildly across these two extremes, within and among chapters, but the third, featuring Danny DeVito as a frustrated screenwriter and professor, hits hardest.
In it, Dave Schmerz (DeVito) can’t get his script off the ground, but the success of his 19-year old film Apricot keeps him employed as a professor, though his negativity is beginning to rankle fellow faculty and students. Solondz himself is an NYU professor, has had trouble with financing in recent years, and owes his reputation largely to two films from the 90s, and that element of autobiography gives this scenario a fastidiousness the others lack. Solondz creates snooty, privileged students (one student loves so many movies and has always wanted to make them but can’t name any favorites; another wanted to apply 90s queer theory from a racial perspective,” before being dissuaded by an epistemology book) while also interrogating notions of establishment and good taste—the latter of which Solondz has never cared much for—as they are manifested within Schmerz.
The other segments are less effective, never finding the right balance that made the very reputation Solondz seems to interrogate via the DeVito character. The failure to communicate as a theme unites all four, and when the dog becomes a literal work of art in the end, Solondz’s own strain to communicate becomes palpable. Though he ultimately fails to provide the insight that once came with horrifying ease, the visibility of his struggle is its own form of honesty.