When it is done right, there is nothing more cathartic than a dark comedy. It can expose all of the strange and terrible inconsistencies of human nature while still being an enjoyable night out. Writer/Director Todd Solandz of Happiness is considered by many to be the apex of the genre. I for one have never seen a film by Solondz and as such went into Wiener Dog unsure of what movie to expect. However, one thing I did expect was in fact, a movie. It’s unclear if Wiener Dog could even be called such. It’s more the cinematic equivalent of overdosing on anti-depressants without an EMT to come to your aid. Instead, for ninety minutes, you’re left trapped in a mind-numbing realm of hell. The worst part: I’m sure Solondz would take that as a compliment.
The film is an anthology of four so-called “stories” about the most miserable human beings on the Earth’s surface. Dina (Julie Delpy) and Danny (Tracy Letts) are a horrifically matched upper-class couple attempting to raise their cancer survivor son, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke). Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig inheriting a character from Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse) finds herself whisked away by former high school bully Brandon (Kieran Culkin). Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito) is a former screenwriter turned jaded college professor who is universally hated by his students. Last but not least, Nana (Ellen Burstyn) is a bitter old woman forced to deal with a visit from her burn out granddaughter Zoe (Zoisa Mamet) and her boyfriend Fantasy (Michael Shaw). The only thing linking these folks together is a small Daschund dog that stumbles into their lives.
Wiener Dog’s unfiltered pretentiousness is as repugnant as the diarrhea its protagonist suffers early on. It’s a film utterly void of structure, solely concerned with depicting misery. Despite the fact that none of the stories run over twenty minutes, they each still feel fatty. They alternate between going nowhere, or taking a slight baby step towards somewhere at the climax, only to abruptly end. For the majority of the scenes, Solondz just rolls around in his characters’ awkwardness like a pig in slop. There isn’t anything particularly interesting in the writing of such awkwardness either. It’s all the standard “what does death mean?” or “I’m destined for nothing,” runaround that thousands of amateur playwrights have delved into before.
The characters are universally boring, although some of the actors do get a few fumes of mileage out of them. Delpy and DeVito, in particular, do hit a couple of very strong notes here. In fact, DeVito comes so close to making his eternally sidetracked professor sympathetic that if expanded, his story arc could have made for a compelling film. Meanwhile, Gerwig and Culkin are empty vessels floating through what is by far the most meandering storyline. I’m sure that some knowledge of Dollhouse character might enhance things a little bit. Although, it’s hard to imagine much of a difference, as the assumption that people will pick that detail up is pretty arrogant. Meanwhile, Burstyn’s story is relegated to the very end of the film, and she’s cuffed to a fairly standard mean old lady role. With the possible exception of DeVito, all of these people ring completely false. They’re not authentic depictions of depression, just tired types created by somebody who desperately wants to seem as heartbroken as they are.
Oh yeah, the dog. For those wondering exactly what the title character contributes to this story, the answer is…
It would certainly be unfair to judge Solondz’s entire career off of one late-career failure. However, that doesn’t change the fact that Weiner Dog is one of the most perplexing movies this writer has ever seen. It’s pessimistic without being clever, vocally dry without any visual fluidity, and over without any hint that it had started. Instead, I’d recommend going into one of those mall dog stores and finding one that you just think is adorable. Tell the worker that you’re going to buy it, and then open its’ cage, letting it get its first taste of freedom. Then, without warning, run out of the store, leaving the dog in captivity. It will be a much more pleasant, not to mention free experience, guaranteed.