A cantankerous elderly woman with a granddaughter after money to help fund the modern art of her boyfriend named Fantasy. A lonely film school professor whose own screenwriting career is going nowhere after one brief success decades before, considering an act of revenge against the institution of his employment that sees him as a relic. A bickering married couple trying to make their son happy during his recovery from cancer, albeit with the mother lacking any sort of internal filter and having a proclivity towards explicit monologues about dog rape in front of her pubescent child. And a grown-up version of Welcome to the Dollhouse lead Dawn Wiener bumping into a childhood tormentor and embarking on a road trip with him to visit his brother-in-law with Down Syndrome. With this collection of characters for an anthology movie set-up, Wiener-Dog is just about the Todd Solondz-iest film you could expect from writer-director Todd Solondz in 2016, but there is an interesting formal setup to set it apart from the more standard formula of most of his divisive filmography.
For one thing, this one has a musical intermission with a dog journeying across America while a tune not terribly dissimilar in sound to C.W. McCall’s “Convoy” plays. But more importantly, it’s got a connective tissue that provokes comparison to a filmmaker most probably wouldn’t think to ever associate with a Todd Solondz film: Robert Bresson. Yes, in having a forlorn-looking dachshund be the consistent player in these four anthology stories of misanthropes and miserably treated (which sometimes sees the animal face an undesirable fate), Wiener-Dog is basically a Solondz spin on the setup of Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar — the donkey replaced by a doggie. The comparison doesn’t really extend to the overall quality of the respected pieces, however, but this is at least a more palatable offering from the director than, say, Palindromes.
Solondz has always had a good eye, too, and this is carried over to Wiener-Dog’s images courtesy of cinematographer Edward Lachman. Particularly memorable is a long tracking shot across a road littered with the results of the wiener-dog’s diarrhea after being fed a steady supply of granola bars. If the film’s central conceit recalls Bresson, in this moment it provides an unexpected homage to another beloved French filmmaker, Jean-Luc Godard, specifically the lengthy tracking shot of a traffic pile-up in Weekend. One wonders what his spin on Truffaut might be: possibly yet another incarnation of Dawn Wiener frozen in time in a final shot, à la Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows.
At this point in Solondz’s 30-plus year career, to suggest that he hates people in general is a long tired cliché. There certainly aren’t an abundance of happy endings in Wiener-Dog, but as a rather unflinching meditation on the concept of mortality, there are still the occasional glimmers of hope amid the prevalent bitterness. The Greta Gerwig (Dawn) strand, for one, has a genuinely touching exchange between Kieran Culkin’s character (Brandon) and his brother-in-law, wherein the former of the siblings tries to explain over and over again that their mutual father has passed away as a result of a drinking-related illness.
In the segments like Dawn’s, the dachshund is a key figure within the relevant narrative. In her case, she has rescued the dog from being put down, and the pup forms a means by which she can bond with Brandon. In the first segment, which ends with parents Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts deciding to have the dog put of its misery when it is taken ill, prior to Gerwig’s Dawn rescuing him and nursing him back to help, the animal’s relationship with their son is the driving factor of the story. So it’s a little strange that the back half of the film sees the dog become a peripheral presence, practically a prop. He has less thematic or emotional relevancw, and instead becomes little more than a plot device, or rather a tool for a punch-line considering — spoiler alert — the dark turns the very final moments of those two stories take.
It almost comes across as though outlines of the latter two stories were in Solondz’s drawer for years and he decided to squeeze them into this dog-themed anthology movie he’d come up with, even though they weren’t originally conceived for that purpose. Kind of like how people think most of Woody Allen’s films of late end up making it to the screen. The latter two stories certainly have their merits, not least the compelling performances of Danny DeVito as the professor, Ellen Burstyn as the grandmother and Zosia Mamet as the anxious, troubled granddaughter with blatant anxieties about trying to con money out of the old woman once more. And they certainly have their funny moments, with one standout being a one-scene turn from young Louder Than Bombs star Devin Druid, giving the world’s worst interview about why he would want to go to film school. But when experiencing the film as a whole, both in the moment and reflecting on it afterwards, cohesion with the feel of the first two tales never really feels palpable.
It can’t help but seem like there was one film about a dog bringing people together in light of troubled times, if only briefly, but then it was decided that there would also be a film about a dog being a prop for stories that his detractors would label as “autopilot Solondz.” So if you’re into that, you know what you’re going to get and will probably get enough from it. Me, I just want “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog” as a ringtone.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.