I was more than a little weary about venturing out to see Todd Solondz’s latest pitch black provocation, the ensemble cast “comedy” Wiener-Dog, last weekend. I hadn’t seen a Solondz flick since 2001’s mostly-forgettable anthology piece Storytelling and I’m a lot less cynical than I was in my college days when I would have listed Happiness as one of my all-time favorite films. I was right to worry too, not because Wiener-Dog is necessarily bad or mediocre Solondz, but because it’s very much steeped in the niche he’s carved out for himself as a storyteller. The writer-director works the absurdist cruelty that made him something of an indie scene name in the 90s with titles like Happiness & Welcome to the Dollhouse into the everything-is-connected (and equally hopeless) anthology structure of Storytelling, constructing an amusingly odd & deeply painful existential crisis that is unmistakably his own style & tone. What’s most interesting here, though, is how much of Solondz’s own personality is displayed & dissected onscreen. The director not only stubbornly recommits to the bleak trajectory of his life’s work; he also steps back to question why he would make such pointless, nihilistic art in the first place. Solondz coldly asks the audience what is the point of anything at all, but is smart to include his own art & existence in that query. The answer is far from concrete, but it’s haunting in its abstraction.
In a basic, structural sense Wiener-Dog is a road trip tour through Todd Solondz’s America. Similar to the black comedy Baxter, the film follows its titular dog, a dachshund, as it changes ownership though various tragedies & betrayals, providing a window into the dreary homes & familial structures that typify a nation Solondz finds . . . distasteful. A young cancer survivor (whose visage playfully cribs from the Linklater landmark Boyhood) falls in love with the dog as his first pet; an old woman tenderly cares for it as her last. A vet tech takes the pup on a road trip; a lonely college professor contains it in his tiny office & apartment. Every owner the dachshund encounters is vulnerable & alone in a cruel world eager to punish them for any display of open-hearted earnestness. Together, they form an American patchwork that paints the country as “lonely”, “sad”, “depressing”, “like an elephant drowning in a sea of despair.” Solondz’s America is brimming with strip clubs, alcoholism, superhero movies, hipster irony, mental disability, misogynistic video games, heroin, diarrhea, and a beyond-broken economy. People lie, threaten, and manipulate each other in a never-ending cycle of cruelty and the folks who suffer the most damage from that time-honored American tradition are the ones most capable of empathy & selflessness. The one exception might be Solondz’s surrogate, a frustrated film school professor who can’t overcome his own bitterness, lest you think the director himself wasn’t also complicit in that cycle. It’s dark stuff.
So, where does the innocent wiener-dog fit in all of this? As Danny DeVito’s bitter film professor/Solondz surrogate puts it, “You need a schtick. Everyone loves a little schtick.” If in Solondz’s America the earnest & the eager are the most harshly & frequently punished, a dog is the best possible manifestation of that concept, since all the little pups of the world really want to do is please us & be loved. Watching the wiener-dog ride skateboard or wear a cute costume is a great way to grab an audience’s attention & force them to focus on something uncomfortable, a gimmick Solondz pulls off openly & deliberately. During an old-fashioned intermission our canine talisman is represented as a larger than life, fiercely American tall tale with her own theme song, a moment that reinforces the empty artificiality of filmmaking as an art. After this break, the dog’s ownership changes hands without explanation, moving away from the linear storytelling of the first half & becoming an explicit plot device (quite literally in one particular moment of workplace terrorism, yet another American pastime). Solondz gets bored of his own structural schtick & begins to point his cinematic weaponry back at himself, asking questions like, “Why do you want to be a filmmaker?” and addressing criticisms of his work like, “The general consensus is that you’re too negative.” By the last shot the dog doesn’t matter at all and is reduced to the most meaningless of abstract art piece reflections on the mundanity of existence & mortality. It wags its tail & barks, but that action signifies nothing.
It’s difficult to figure out how to sell Todd Solondz’s films, which tend to occupy an uncomfortable space between comedy & tragedy that’s more likely to make you squirm than laugh or cry (despite what their oddly generic trailers indicate). Wiener-Dog seems to be a self-examination piece on the cruel stage play absurdity & ultimate pointlessness of that art/schtick’s place in this world and, more specifically, its function within a spiritually drained, soulless America. Just as I questioned what significance a modern Solondz work could possibly hold in my life, the director himself seems equally eager to prod at that conundrum in the context of life at large. There are some great performances along the way (DeVito, playwright Tracy Letts, Julie Delpy, Ellen Burnstyn, Kieran Culkin, Greta Gerwig in an all-growed-up Welcome to the Dollhouse role), that might each have served as a worthwhile character study in an indie dramedy had Solondz followed through on any particular full-length narrative, but the director doesn’t seem to think telling these stories from front to end is worthwhile. Exhausted with the soulless journeymen efforts of “What if? Then what?” screenplay writing, he instead reflects on an artform & a nation that he feels have failed us all. You can see that despair plainly in a tender, delicate pan over an endless display of canine diarrhea. Solondz displays the skills required to deliver a great film were he interested, but the exercise seems increasingly empty to him. Watching him mull over that emptiness and the great, hopeless expanse of the country & mortality that contain it is largely what makes Wiener-Dog fascinating, if not soul-crushingly depressing, which is par for the course in the context of Solondz’s catalog. I’ll leave it up to you to decide if that kind of dispirited existential crisis & self-examination sounds at all palatable to your tastes for an evening’s entertainment.