Movie Review: Wiener-Dog (2016)
Director: Todd Solondz
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Tracy Letts
Synopsis: A dachshund has a number of owners durings its life.
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Misanthropic independent moviemaker Todd Solondz imposes more of his nihilistic vision on a no-longer-so-unsuspecting public with Wiener-Dog, a work of dark distress which disguises itself as an archly cynical comedy to take a swipe at those wretched souls trapped – or blind to – the meaningless of their lives. It’s a portmanteau movie in which each story shares only the titular creature, a Dachshund whose lack of control over his future is a reflection of the plight of its unsuspecting owners. Solondz’s dispassionate style keeps his audience at arm’s length, putting one in mind of Robert Bresson’s equally joyless Au hazard Balthasar – which is just as well considering the unpleasant fate that awaits the little chap.
Wiener-Dog’s first owner is Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a nine-year-old survivor of cancer, whose home is made cold and humourless by the frosty relationship of his parents and their inability to relate to him on any meaningful level. Solondz turns the boy’s uncomplicated devotion to Wiener-Dog into a weapon by which he is psychologically bludgeoned when the dog is taken from him, an instrument from which he learns the few cruel truths about life that his own illness has not already taught him.
The dog is rescued from a lethal injection by Dawn Weiner (Greta Gerwig), a veterinary assistant – and recurring Solondz character – who goes on a road trip with Brandon (Kieran Culkin), an old schoolmate with whom she has recently become re-acquainted. He has a drugs habit, but Dawn doesn’t seem to notice or, if she does, to care, and the road-trip is to visit his Downs Syndrome brother to inform him of the death of their alcoholic father.
Next is Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito – L.A. Confidential, The Rainmaker), a college screenwriting tutor, despised by his students who consider him a dinosaur, who hopes that the screenplay he has written will enjoy the same success as his first – and only – successful work 19 years before. Finally, the dog ends up at the side of an embittered old lady (Ellen Burstyn – The Exorcist, Interstellar) who’s haunted by the choices she never made and the direction her life might have taken if she had.
Solondz’s deadpan humour is definitely an acquired taste, and watching Wiener-Dog proves to be a dispiriting experience. At the same time, there’s no doubting Solondz’s talent, both as a unique and distinctive director, and a writer with a consistent, provocative style. But his vision is so cold and melancholic, his humour so laced with bitterness and spite, that his work comes across as a contemptuous challenge to the audience.
(Reviewed 2nd September 2016)