Fuse Film Review: “Wiener-Dog” — Dog Day Afterlife

In time, Wiener-Dog may be the film that defines Todd Solondz as a filmmaker.

Wiener-Dog, directed by Todd Solondz. Screening at the Kendall Square Cinema, Cambridge, MA.

A scene from "Weiner-Dog."

A scene from “Wiener-Dog.”

Arts Fuse interview with director Todd Solondz.

By Peg Aloi

Director Todd Solondz revisits a character from 1985’s Welcome to the Dollhouse (Dawn Wiener, a bullied misfit adolescent, nicknamed “Wiener Dog” by her tormentors) by way of the filmmaker’s familiar themes of alienation, mistreatment, unconditional love, dishonesty, and perversion. Wiener-Dog also muses, sometimes in darkly comic tones, on death.

The film begins with a man placing a dachshund in a cage, putting it somewhat carelessly into the back of his truck, and delivering the animal to a strip mall pet store. The strip mall shops are listed on a sign but there doesn’t seem to be a pet store. This image is one of many that suggests much in its knowing simplicity; as with the next scene, that shows the dog placed in a cage with acid green walls, and the dog listlessly sniffing at its food bowl. A man (Tracy Letts) buys the dog for his son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) who is a cancer survivor; his mother (Julie Delpy) is against the idea but goes along. Remi falls in love and names his new pet Wiener Dog.

The parents treat the dog with indifference, even cruelty, but lonely Remi’s love for Wiener Dog is unconditional and triumphant. The first shot of Remi lying in the grass, with a dreamy expression, echoes the sight of Dawn Wiener back in the day. Like Dawn, Remi is vulnerable but also compassionate; he seems to need this dog to help him feel hope. Wiener Dog is kept in a cage, but when his parents leave for the day, Remi releases her and the two frolic to “Claire de Lune.” When a mishap with a granola bar makes Wiener Dog an unacceptable resident for the household, she is taken to be euthanized, and Remi and his mother talk about it in the car. She tries to explain why Wiener Dog has to be put to sleep, prompting existential questions from Remi:

“Death is a sad thing but a natural thing. And sometimes it happens without any reason at all.”
“But what about God?”
“We don’t believe in God.”
“What do we believe in?”
“Truth, compassion, love.”
“We’re all going to die.”
“That’s why we have each other. That’s why we love each other.”
“Then death is a good thing?”

Remi’s tearful, wise expression is perhaps one of the most impressive bits of acting I’ve seen on screen this year.

In the next scene, vet technician Dawn Wiener (played by Greta Gerwig) is preparing Wiener Dog for euthanizing; but when the vet steps out of the room, she wraps the dog in a blanket and takes her home. She holds the dog in a blanket, sings to it, and names it Doody. The dog seems happy once more. Gerwig evokes Dawn’s social awkwardness with restrained nuance. Heather Matarazzo’s performance in Welcome to the Dollhouse is reflected in Gerwig’s watchfulness, her loneliness, and eagerness to please.

Dawn runs into an old schoolmate named Brandon (played with perfect insouciance by Keiran Culkin), who used to bully her. Fans of Welcome to the Dollhouse will remember Brandon (played then by Brendan Sexton III) as the bully who decided he actually liked Dawn, who, away from his friends, kisses her. He says he’s passing through and doesn’t acknowledge the intimacy of their school years, though it’s written all over Dawn’s face. They exchange awkward pleasantries and he unexpectedly invites her to accompany him to Ohio the next day. Brandon visits his brother Tommy, who has Downs Syndrome, as does his wife April. After an overnight visit, Dawn gives them Doody. A tender moment occurs between Brandon and Dawn, and we guess they may end up together; even more so because this segment segues into a stylized “intermission” with a hilarious musical ode to Wiener Dog.

We then see Doody again (or maybe another Wiener Dog? The progression of ownership is a bit unclear at this point), owned by a washed-up screenwriter named Dave (Danny Devito) whose teaching gig at a film school is in jeopardy because of his “negative attitude.” Sadness and dejection is etched into the the man’s gray cheeks: a glimmer of excitement at the prospect of his screenplay being considered by Dreamworks is overshadowed by a humiliating takedown when a successful young alumnus makes fun of his teaching strategies. To say more will give away the film’s unusual narrative twists and turns, but suffice it to say the owners of this dog (or these dogs, the kind of dog represented by Wiener Dog, silly looking, not fulfilling a specific purpose, and curiously devoid of expression) are portrayed as life’s losers, life’s misunderstood and unloved people, who go through their lives not quite managing to be fulfilled.

The final segment is my favorite, starring Ellen Burstyn as a nearly-blind woman (“Nana”) whose granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet), another eager-to-please misfit, comes to visit, dragging along her narcissistic, talentless, angry artist boyfriend named Fantasy (Michael James Shaw), who animates taxidermied animals because he is “interested in mortality.” Nana’s wiener dog is named Cancer, because, she says, “it felt right.” Zoe prattles on about her life and her plans, says “There’s no rush, I’m still young,” to which Nana brusquely responds “Don’t kid yourself.” A dreamlike sequence shows Nana a glimpse of who she might have been if she had taken any number of other paths in life. It is surreal, outrageous and ineffably moving. It’s followed by an ending sequence that is infuriating in its brutality and coldness.

Ed Lachman’s cinematography is beautifully calibrated for the Wiener-Dog‘s moments of warmth and frost. The film’s contrived set pieces and moods are an odd fit for the realistic acting and dialogue. There’s a sense of, well, of things not quite belonging. The humor feels at odds with the darkness at times. It’s tempting to dismiss this as directorial misfiring or lack of clarity. And yet there are indelible moments of pathos, pain, and wonder. I find myself thinking this film will in time be seen as one that defines Solondz as a filmmaker. And it may not be a frivolous question to ask how our response to Wiener-Dog defines us as filmgoers, or as human beings.

Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She has taught film studies for a number of years at Emerson College and is currently teaching media studies at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews have appeared in Art New England and Cinefantastique Online, and she writes a media blog for Patheos.com called The Witching Hour.

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