The latest from director Todd Solondz is a comedy, but it may be the saddest comedy you’ll ever see. It features Solondz’s distinctly dark humour and willingness to find absurdity in the more depressing side of life, in a story with death or mortality as a key theme in each of its four chapters.
Just for clarification: Wiener-Dog has sometimes been referred to as a sequel, which is not quite accurate. Fans of Solondz’s work might recognise the names of two characters from his previous films, now older and played by different actors. One of them is Dawn Wiener, a child character introduced in 1995 in Welcome To the Dollhouse, who was nicknamed Wiener-Dog by school bullies, and who died in a second film (Palindromes, 2004). This film revives and catches up with Dawn and a school friend, and gives them a certain degree of closure, but is not meant as a continuation of the earlier films. Solondz simply likes to recycle his characters.
The loosely woven plot of Wiener-Dog follows the title character, a female short-haired dachshund, as she is passed from one owner to the next, influencing their lives in different ways; sometimes acting as a direct catalyst for action, sometimes as its unwitting victim, and sometimes merely providing a calm bystander to the chaos around her. In the course of the film, she has four significant owners that seem to represent the stages of life: a child, a youth, a middle aged man, and an elderly woman.The little dachshund acts as a friendly but passive good fairy for her owners, a series of people experiencing various degrees of suffering, confusion, hardship, or indecision, remaining a placid observer or providing comfort as her dysfunctional owners make bad decisions or endure horrible luck. She becomes the central focus only during the brief, whimsical ‘intermission,’ halfway through the film, during which she plods through a series of green-screen landscapes, including deserts, arctic blizzards, and city streets, accompanied by the Wiener-Dog Ballad, which sings of her courage and determination (“She soldiers on where angels fear to tread!”) in the style of a cowboy ballad about intrepid pioneers – an example of Solondz’s unusual sense of humour, and a break from the fairly depressing storyline.
Her first owner is a small boy who is recovering from cancer, and is given the dog by his cold and controlling but well-meaning father in the hopes of cheering the child up. The dog does, in fact, bring happiness into the boy’s life, leading to some charming scenes of jubilant play, mostly taking place behind the backs of the boy’s extremely fastidious parents. The dog also inspires the boy to ponder questions of life and death, musings which are nearly sabotaged by his parents, who are ludicrously bad at providing explanations – as when his mother attempts to explain the need for having the dog spayed by inventing a ridiculous and gruesome story about dog rape.
A minor mistake leads to the dog leaving the family, in one of the nastier comic scenes in the film, and she ends up in the affectionate care of Dawn Wiener, accompanying her on an ill-considered road trip with an old school friend; then as the pet of a dejected and angry former screenwriter and under-appreciated instructor at a film school (Danny DeVito in what may be the best performance of his career) who uses the dog in a bizarre attempt to lash out at his circumstances.Last of all, the dog is the companion of a lonely and cantankerous elderly woman (Ellen Burstyn) who names the dog Cancer because “it felt right.” Burstyn is wonderful in a storyline that is both funny and pitiful, bringing across the old woman’s anger as well as her sincere but abortive efforts to reach out to her misguided granddaughter. The granddaughter’s boyfriend, an annoyingly pretentious artist named Fantasy, seems like a bit of self-parody by Solondz, particularly the character’s offhand explanation of his rather gruesome artwork: “I’m interested in mortality” – the same comment once made by Solondz when discussing this film. This chapter of the film includes a beautifully sad dream sequence in which Burstyn’s character is faced with the mistakes that have determined the direction of her nearly-concluded life, and ends with yet another signature combination of the grim and the comical, as the little dog finally exits the film by way of a rather disturbing epilogue.
Wiener-Dog has charm, and it is genuinely funny at times, but its bitter honesty and bleak tone can also be uncomfortable. While the dog is never seen to suffer deliberate injury, she endures multiple experiences in keeping with the theme of mortality, and the sentimental dog lover may find some scenes distressing. While Solondz’s form of black comedy is an acquired taste, the peculiar brand of humour and unique storytelling style keeps the film as strangely engrossing as his other work.
For further viewing…
Todd Solondz’s earlier film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, is another of his black comedies, following the exploits of homely, constantly bullied, 13-year-old Dawn Wiener as she makes endless bad choices and copes with her relentless bad luck. Often painfully realistic in spite of its comic exaggeration.