Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Review: "Wiener-Dog"

Talk about black comedy. "Wiener-Dog," the newest from quirky writer/director Todd Solondz ("Welcome to the Dollhouse"), makes even his earlier work some bright and cheery.

The title refers to a cute little dachshund who acts as the film's MacGuffin, getting passed around from owner to owner through a series of unlikely happenings. The story isn't about the dog, though, rather than the dysfunctional people into whose lives she enters and impacts in often odd ways.

It's an ensemble piece starring the likes of Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn and Julie Delpy, each playing characters who are in some way bitter or sad. The dog's presence doesn't necessarily make them happier or more despondent, but serves as an impetus to them acting upon their situation, taking the next step in their pitiful lives.

They may not grow, but at least they're in motion.

For instance, DeVito plays a has-been screenwriter still eking out an existence as a film school teacher, where he's derided by the students and faculty as criminally out of touch. He's (in)famous for his old-school Hollywood "What if" approach to storytelling -- what if your girlfriend dumps you? What if you're mistaken for a spy?

His agent has just dumped him, the replacement seems eager to pass him off too, nobody wants to even read his new script, and the school's dean literally uses him to fill seats at a Q&A with an incredibly snotty alumni who just made a hit film -- where he's insulted from the stage, because who knew the old fossil was still rambling around?

He ends up with a novel use for the dog as the ultimate middle finger to everyone who's put him down.

The comedy in this portion is the most biting, especially the bile directed at know-nothing youngsters who deride the professor's approach but have nothing to contribute themselves. I especially liked the interview with a prospective student who is completely unable or unwilling to name a specific movie that inspired him. "Just name a movie!" he finally thunders.

(No doubt these scenes are inspired by Solondz' own tenure teaching at my alma mater, New York University's Tisch School of the Arts. After watching this film, I would tremble to speak up as a student in his class...)

Other sequences are less compelling, like the opening one which provides the title. The dog is given that name by a young boy, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), whose father buys his son a pet as part of his recuperation process from cancer. The parents (Tracy Letts and Delpy) employ the pup as another front in their ongoing war against each other. But the whole piece feels stiff and constructed.

Better is a strange meeting between an elderly woman (Burstyn), bitter and lonely, who gets a visit from her wayward granddaughter, played by Zosia Mamet. Their tenuous relationship is spotlit in just a few marvelous minutes of screen time -- the girl only shows up every few years when she needs money, with her latest all-wrong boyfriend in tow. This is followed by the grandmother's encounter with her own mortality that is both amusing and harrowing.

Another portion of the canine's journey is being dognapped by a veterinary assistant (Greta Gerwig, in frump mode with big glasses), who nurses him back to health after almost being euthanized. She bumps into an old tormentor from high school (Kieran Culkin) whom she secretly had a crush on, and the two begin a spontaneous road trip to Ohio. Along the way they pick up hitchhikers -- surely the most morose mariachi band that ever existed -- and the bully has an unexpectedly heartfelt conversation with his brother.

Sometimes the dog's transition is made explicit, such as the dognapping, but other times he just appears, Zelig-like, in the midst of the next chapter.

"Wiener-Dog" is an odd, odd film. That seems to be an ongoing thing nowadays, with films like this and "Swiss Army Man," that embrace weirdness for its own sake. The humor is bone-dry and wry, the sort of thing that produces a grimaced smirk rather than a guffaw.

I can't say I really enjoyed it in its totality, but it has interesting stops along the way.

1 comment:

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