The Woman in the Window (2021)

I’m exhausted.  The joyless drudgery of life & work in this era of never-ending health pandemics and hurricanes has completely drained me.  I’m most aware of this general, bottomless exhaustion when I’m trying to indulge in the few simple pleasures that used to be fun, frivolous hobbies – most notably discussing movies with strangers on the internet.  I used to have an endless enthusiasm for sharing & combating opinions on hot-topic movie releases online, but lately the most effort I can muster is recording my movie takes on this self-published blog, where I know they’ll be politely ignored.  A large part of the disconnect I’m feeling between the movies I’ve been watching and the Online Discourse surrounding them has to do with social media’s addiction to red-hot, extremist, Galaxy Brain takes.  The last couple years of COVID-era labor & tedium have left me numb to most pop culture stimuli, so it’s getting increasingly difficult to pretend that every single release needs to be immediately sorted into either the Best Movie Ever or the Total Garbage categories.  Most movies are unremarkable, especially when viewed outside the sensory-immersion ritual of experiencing them at a proper cinema.  All I’m really looking for here is a pleasant way to pass the time between shifts at the office.

To that end, I’ll confess that I cannot match the enthusiasm of either the overwhelming consensus that The Woman in the Window is an embarrassing failure or the minority reclamation of it as an underappreciated trash gem.  Joe Wright’s adaptation of the post-Gillian Flynn paperback thriller has had its own exhausting travels from concept to screen, initially planned as a theatrical release through 20th Century Fox but instead landing a COVID-flavored streaming deal with Netflix.  That twisty distribution path has been widely perceived as a fall from grace, saddling The Woman in the Window with the perception of being a major studio misfire worthy of internet-wide jeers & mockery.  I wish I could join the chorus of trash-gobbling genre nerds who’ve pushed back on that pre-loaded consensus opinion, praising the film as delightfully preposterous pop art with a fun, distinct sense of style.  I just can’t help but find both positions to be an exaggeration of what The Woman in the Window actually is.  It’s low-key, wine-buzz fun as a Lifetime thriller version of Rear Window, but not enough of a hoot to make the effort of defending its honor worthwhile.  Forcing it into either a Best or Worst category feels like a desperate attempt to conjure Discourse out of thin air – a distinctly modern, thoroughly embarrassing form of alchemy.

There are many classic thrillers directly cited onscreen throughout The Woman in the WindowGaslight, Laura, Dark Passage, etc.—but Rear Window is its clearest, most dominant source of inspiration.  Amy Adams stars as a nosy, isolated neighbor who can’t tell if she’s witnessed a murder through the next-door family’s window or if mixing obnoxious amounts of red wine with her new behavioral meds is causing her to hallucinate.  Not to spoil too much in a review of a movie that was hotly debated and then promptly forgotten months ago, but the answer is both.  Wright submerges the audience in his spaced-out, reclusive heroine’s wine-tinted POV to the point where the physical existence of all events, suspects, and “helpful” side characters are highly questionable.  Each performance outside of Adams’s woman-on-the-verge protagonist borders on the comic absurdism of a dream sequence or an improv sketch.  Adams often wakes up from her heavily medicated blackouts visually immersed in the Turner Classic Movies that loop on her TV screen.  There is no point in attempting to solve the mysteries of either the murder at hand or the circumstances of its drunken witness’s past.  All you can do until the story sobers up is occasionally cackle at Wright’s overreaching attempts at visual style, while taking note of all the better-realized mystery thrillers he cites onscreen as reference.

If there’s anything especially embarrassing about The Woman in the Window‘s mediocre, straight-to-streaming pleasures, it’s in the amount of big-name talent needed to pull it off.  Beyond wasting the typically powerful screen presence of actors like Jennifer Jason Leigh, Julianne Moore, and Brian Tyree Henry on roles with no significant impact, this big-budget Lifetime howler was also penned by Tracy Letts and scored by Danny Elfman – two legends in their respective crafts.  The prestige of those contributions doesn’t really change the fact that the movie is reasonably cromulent as a passive entertainment.  I’m not even sure Wright was aiming his ambitions much higher than that anyway.  The most pivotal scene in the entire film features Adams and Moore as two moms getting wine drunk on Halloween night, which I feel like is a perfect illustration of the film’s target audience.  Watch it when you want something lightly suspenseful and highly silly that won’t tax too much of your brain power before your job or your kids or the general malaise of living on this hell-planet zaps the rest of it out of you.  It’s not worth much as a topic of online conversation, but it is a mildly entertaining way to spend 100 minutes.

-Brandon Ledet

Wiener-Dog (2016)

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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.

-Brandon Ledet