“Wiener Dog” is a movie about a sweet-faced, open-hearted dachshund who weaves her charming way through the lives of people at four different stages of life, all of whom treat her with love and affection, which she returns unconditionally.
Well, sort of.
Being that she’s not only a dog, but a dog in a Todd Solondz movie, she’s prone to acting capriciously, occasionally suffering greatly for her bad choices, gratefully accepting the love she receives even when it’s misguided or when its good intentions cause unintended harm. As she continues to be pushed along by fate that is often cruel, she also finds the occasional moment of transcendent joy.
Of course the same can be said of the humans.
Solondz (“Happiness,” “Welcome to the Dollhouse”) is often accused of being misanthropic, but he does view his characters with compassion. He simply refuses to shy away from the difficulties they face, or to sugarcoat the ways that life beats them down, or to envision them as in any way heroic when they are often complicit in their own foibles. To put it another way, with fair warning to those unfamiliar with his style: nobody – and yes, that includes its canine star – is spared from indignity or tragedy, so tread carefully; particularly if you are sensitive to the suffering of animals and/or people. But some may find it good news that they are likewise spared feel-good platitudes.
And of course he gets some dark (pitch-black, more like) humor out of even the bleakest situations.
When we first meet Wiener Dog, she’s dropped off at a shelter where other dogs are manically barking, while Wiener Dog stares silently, winsomely at the camera. Wiener Dog is, in fact, a typical Solondz character. Just like the humans, she’s an outcast, largely unnoticed by those who run with the pack, reacting to all that life hands her with a deadpan expression, resigned to whatever fate awaits her at her next destination.
In her first post-pound home, she’s given as a gift to 9-year old cancer survivor Remy (Keaton Nigel Cooke) by his bickering, distracted parents (Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts). A rare taste of independence while his parents are at yoga class provides a touching bonding moment between the two, exhibited with flying pillow feathers, a delicious tribute to Jean Vigo’s Zero D’Conduit, as the two enjoy a moment of uninhibited joy. But a steep price is soon paid when the boy offers the dog a piece of his granola bar, which she heartily devours. The result is what might be the only tracking shot in cinema history dedicated to dog diarrhea. It’s gross, disturbing and hard to watch, but beautifully shot (by award-winning cinematographer Edward Lachman). In other words, it’s another Solondz touch – an unflinching portrayal of how unencumbered joy and unrelieved pain are inevitable partners.
The other consequence of the event is that the dog is taken to be euthanized, resulting in some tough life lessons being forced on the innocent youngster, who is told that the dog will feel no pain, but also that a dog’s fate is cruel (in a darkly funny but also deeply disturbing Delpy speech), the ultimate gist of which is that humans are the dog’s only friends, but are also ultimately powerless to help them.
And with that the dog disappears from his life – only to be rescued from the euthanizing table by a vet assistant, none other than Dawn Wiener from “Welcome to the Doll House” (Greta Gerwig), now an adult. Dawn – whose nickname is, of course, Wiener Dog – takes pity on the poor beast and takes her home. And who else should show up just at that moment but her former crush/tormenter/bully from Doll House, Brandon (Kieran Culkin), with whom she takes off on the road on a whim. They stay together in a tawdry roadside motel, where he shoots up in the bathroom as Dawn stares out the window, declaring blankly, to no one in particular, that she’ll miss absolutely nothing about her old life. When they show up to inform Brandon’s brother that their alcoholic father has passed away, the brother and his wife (both of whom have Down Syndrome) are given care of the dog. As Brandon and Dawn head toward their uncertain future, the camera catches them furtively holding hands – a sensitive but thoroughly unromantic moment, in which two people heading nowhere at least know that they’ll have each other’s company.
The four sequences are divided in half by an intermission that is both hilarious and a welcome respite from the prevailing darkness, as the dog cavorts before some cliché Hollywood backgrounds while her theme song (written by songwriter Marc Shaiman) plays in the background.
Without explanation or segue, we next meet up with Wiener Dog in New York City, where she’s living in a tiny apartment with former screenwriter David Schmerz (Danny DeVito). Scmerz is the ultimate schlemiel, still trying to sell his new script while endlessly hawking his scripting advice (“What if? What then?”) to a disinterested student body and faculty at the local film school, where he is lectured by staff to be more positive toward the artistic endeavors of students who are big on talk of gender theory and artistic subversion but with no interest in or knowledge of film history. Schmerz mostly exists to poke fun at Hollywood both old and new, caught between executives that lead him through a morass of promised callbacks, ego stroking and buck-passing, and clueless hipster film students. But when it results in one final desperate plea for attention (in which the dog is a cheerful but unwitting accomplice), he is confronted by members of NYPD’s bomb squad enquiring if he is, indeed, David Schmerz. His predictable response – “What if I am? What then?” sends him to his self-imposed denouement, and Wiener Dog to her next home.
Her next home, and the final sequence, is probably the one that will linger in the watcher’s memory the longest. The dog’s final stop is with a woman referred to only as “Nana” (Ellen Burstyn, in a brilliant performance) getting a rare visit from her granddaughter Zoe, (Zosia Mamet), who we soon find out is there to ask for funding for her boyfriend’s art project. Nana gives away money as indiscriminately as Wiener Dog does her faithfulness and companionship, but does so while staring blankly behind dark glasses and a scowl. A quick nap with her doggy companion beside her (renamed ‘Cancer’ because “it felt right”) brings on an equally hilarious and terrifying dream sequence, in which Nana is lectured by angelic past versions of herself about how much better her life might be had she been nicer.
Through it all, Wiener Dog sits dutifully by their sides, accepting them and loving them exactly as they are, flaws and all. The tragedy, Solondz seems to suggest, is that innocents are harmed by the actions of others. Or, perhaps, innocents, human or animal, do not truly exist. Whether that is a positive or negative depends not only on one’s sense of humor, but their tolerance for seeing humans and animals put through suffering without the promise of easy salvation or ultimate happiness.