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by Peter Sobczynski

"Okay, So She’s A Dog."
2 stars

Let us suppose for a moment that you are doing something that you enjoy greatly—promenading in the park, tending to your garden or maybe even watching a favorite movie. Let us further suppose that accompanying you in this activity was your loyal and beloved pet—for the purposes of this scenario, we will make the pet in question a dog upon who you lavish an unrelenting stream of kindness and devotion that it returns in its own canine-based manner. Now let us say that these Edenic circumstances are suddenly interrupted by an unpleasant sort who comes out of nowhere to smack you in the back of the head and jerk the dog’s leash hard enough to get some kind of brief but pained reaction while screaming things like “CANCER,” “RAPE,” “AIDS” and similar examples of bleak grimness. After ascertaining that neither the smack nor the tug resulted in any sort of sustained injury, you might reasonably inquire of your attacker exactly what he meant by his largely ineffectual assault and his rote listing of horrors. He—and lets face it, it is a he—may respond that the world is a grim and terrible place and he has taken it upon himself to remind everyone of that. In response, you might inquire as to exactly what his largely feeble stab at attention-getting hoped to accomplish in regards to making things better or, barring that, offering some kind of understanding as to why the darkness that he is yelling about in the most one-dimensional manner imaginable has been allowed to dominate to the extent that it has. At this point, my guess is that the intruder, with nothing else to say, will quickly flee and go off in search of an ostensibly hipper target who will hopefully celebrate his facile attack has being something profound and meaningful.

This is basically the scenario that was going through my head as I was watching “Wiener-Dog,” the latest would-be provocation from Todd Solondz, the creator of such singularly bleak works of cinema as “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Happiness” and “Palindromes.” As has been the case with his previous efforts, the film offers the viewers the privilege of seeing sad, unpleasant and sometimes cruel people doing sad, unpleasant and sometimes cruel things to each other before resining themselves to fates that are oftentimes sad, unpleasant and cruel. The problem with “Wiener-Dog” is not that it is bleak, dour and depressing as much as it is bleak, dour and depressing without being particularly interesting or unique in the process. In fact, this film is little more than a rehashing of ideas and concepts that he has already explored to stronger—if not necessarily better—effect in his previous films. If the end result is, save for a few obvious parts, ultimately less outrageous in its deliberate attempts at button-pushing than usual for him, that says less about the film as a whole than it does about how Solondz himself can barely work up the energy these days to piss people off as he has in the past.

Rather than one sustained storyline, “Weiner-Dog” offers up a quartet of short narratives that loosely connected by a friendly-looking dachshund that we first see being dropped off at an animal shelter. She is soon adopted by a man (Tracy Letts) as a gift for his young son, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), after the boy’s recent recovery from cancer. Remi loves his new pet, who he dubs Wiener-Dog, but his mother (Julie Delpy) is less than thrilled—Wiener-Dog is kept locked in a cage in the garage at night until it is housebroken and when the inevitable trip to the vet inspires her son to ask why she needs to be spayed—what if she wants to have puppies later?—she coldly replies that “Nature doesn’t care about them.” (Later, she will offer additional justification for the spaying by telling her upset child about the beloved poodle that she had as a child in France that was “raped” by a massive dog named Muhammed that gave her a venereal disease that led to her dying while delivering stillborn puppies.) Alas, the fun soon ends when some rambunctious play between the boy and his dog ends in a spectacularly messy fashion when the latter ingests a granola bar and befouls the entire house with a seemingly endless case of diarrhea.

WIener-Dog is shipped off to be euthanized but veterinary assistant Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig)—the grown-up version of the mistreated girl, also called Wiener-Dog, at the center of Solondz’s breakthrough film “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” (Of course, Solondz regulars will also recall that “Palindromes” opened with Dawn’s funeral after she committed suicide, but never mind. . . )—impulsively steals away with the dog, whom she dubs Doody, and nurses her back to health. While shopping for dog food, she has a chance encounter with Brandon (Kieran Culkin), who was so cruel to her back when they were kids and while she is thrilled to reconnect with her former tormentor, his disinterest in talking to her is palpable to everyone but her. For whatever reason, though, he impulsively invites her and Doody to accompany him on a road trip to Ohio for mysterious reasons. Along the way, they give a ride to a trio of morose mariachi players and when they finally arrive at their destination, it is to see Brandon’s brother (Connor Long) and his wife (Bridget Brown), both of whom have Down’s Syndrome, and to deliver some bad news. In a decided break from the past, this story ends on an unexpected note of genuine hope and grace but don’t worry, it doesn’t last.

Following a cheerfully silly intermission—all the more goofy since the film itself barely clocks in at 90 minutes—the film launches into its third story as the dog (though there is an excellent chance, based on the available evidence, that it is a different dachshund entirely) is now in the possession of Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a once-promising screenwriter and film school professor who now cannot get his agent to read his latest screenplay and whose emphasis on narrative structure in the classroom (“What if? Then What?”) has made him a pariah with the students and fellow fault members alike. After one humiliation too many, he finally lashes back and yes, the dog (whose name I don’t recall in this iteration) is involved. Finally, the dog turns up as the companion to an embittered old woman (Ellen Burstyn) who names her Cancer. The woman is visited by her flighty granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) and her boyfriend (Michael Shaw), a pretentious artist in the mode of Damian Hirst (Spoiler Alert!) and after some awkward chitchat, the granddaughter asks to borrow money and then blurts out her fears that her boyfriend is being unfaithful. Although cantankerous to the maximum, the old woman merely uses that to mask her regret at how her life turned out and is visited by visions of young versions of herself that represent potential other lives (including one in which she tipped better). As for the dog? Well, let me just say that the ending of the film suggests that Solondz is clearly a student of the teaching of the great Michael O’Donoghue and he seems to have included it out of a bizarre determination to ensure that the movie ends up getting poisonously bad word-of-mouth from those who see it.

In theory, Todd Solondz is a filmmaker whose work I should embrace—he is fiercely independent, he will most likely never do a film that he doesn’t have some significant personal stake in and at a time when virtually every film seems to have its rough edges sanded away in the hopes of appealing to the biggest audiences imaginable, his misanthropic perspective is definitely a break from the norm. In practice, however, his films have tended to leave me cold because they are so overwrought in their determination to shock viewers and to show that the world everything is horrible that they eventually show as much contempt for audiences as they do to the characters. (Even “Happiness,” generally considered to be his best movie and the only one that I can really stand, goes off-the-boards at one point when a seemingly friendly doorman whom we have only seen for maybe one or two moments is revealed to be a rapist for no particular reason.) That said, the films of his that I have flat-out hated (such as “Storytelling” and “Palindromes”) were at least provocative enough to inspire such a reaction, which I suppose makes them slightly more intriguing than something that instantly evaporates from the mind. The problem with “Wiener-Dog,” as was the case with his previous film, “Dark Horse,” is that his attempts to push the buttons of the audience have grown increasingly feeble and forgettable as he now seems content to simply rehash things that he has done in the past than to put his undeniable gifts as a filmmaker (chiefly his flair for snappily brutal dialogue and his deft handling of actors) to new challenges. There are a few moments in which he tries to inspire uncomfortable reactions from viewers—the long and unbroken shots of the doggie diarrhea, the discussion about how the couple with Down’s Syndrome have been fixed, just like dogs, to prevent them from having children, and the grotesque final images—but they just come across as forced, though there is one shot of the diarrhea that is admittedly kind of amusing.

In most of his past films, Solondz has juggled multiple storylines featuring separate groups of people who are nevertheless united by their common miseries and inabilities to cope with the relentless cruelties of the world that relentlessly befall them. In those cases, at least, the connections between the various stories worked and the end results felt like one consistent piece (a piece of what, of course, is another story). Here, it feels as if Solondz had a few story ideas lying around that he was never quite able to develop into complete screenplays and, rather than let them go to waste, decided to simply string them together into one project and elected to use the dachshund, who is only a key factor in the first story and who becomes increasingly irrelevant in the subsequent episodes, as a unifying link. Unfortunately, the regular shifts in narrative focus do not quite cover up the fact that the individual stories are generally trite and obvious without being especially incisive. The story with the kid and his horrible parents allows him to once again show the unconscious cruelties of bourgeois pigs who are so relentlessly self-involved that they don’t even register the appalling things they are saying—it even concludes with Mom, having sent the dog off to be put to death, explains to her kid that while their family does not believe in God, they do embrace “truth, compassion and love,” just in case the rest of it was too subtle. Reviving the characters from his previous films in new contexts, as he does in the second tale, is a notion that he has already pursued in “Life During Wartime” and “Dark Horse” and the stuff involving the mariachis seems to come from another film that wisely decided to excise it for being pointless. The film professor story allows Solondz to both criticize the current state of the independent film movement and short-circuit any complaints to his own works by having the characters on the screen invoke them all themselves—the same thing he did in the Paul Giamatti segment of “Storytelling” and the final story seems to be nothing more than a shaggy dog tale leading up to that nasty finale.

What ultimately makes “Wiener-Dog” a more frustrating film than most of Solondz’s other efforts is that there are elements through that are worthy of consideration. In the first story, he bit with the boy and his dog at play early on has a genuinely clear-eyed joy to it even as we can practically hear the other shoe dropping and Julie Delpy appears to be having fun launching into her vile monologues. The “Dollhouse” catchup is, save for the mariachi nonsense, probably the most consistent of the four and Greta Gerwig, whose name on a credit list should usually be considered a warning, does a good job of tamping down her aggressively quirky personality to play the far more muted Dawn. The intermission sequence, in which the dog travels the country to the accompaniment of a special song, is hilarious. The story with the professor is the least of the bunch but there is one funny scene in which a kid is trying to bluff his way through an interview to get into film school while evading requests to simply name a film he saw that made an impact on him. (“I know this is a trick question.”) The final story starts off badly with the awkward visit from the granddaughter but the scene in which Burstyn confronts the little girls representing her possible lives is quite powerful. Unfortunately, there are just enough of these moments scattered throughout “Wiener-Dog” to keep viewers hoping that it might turn into something worthwhile but not enough to ultimately make it work.

The acclaimed French filmmaker Robert Bresson once made a film entitled “Au Hasard Balthazar” (1966), which followed the life of a donkey that was befriended as a baby by a young girl but was eventually taken away from her to begin a miserable existence of arduous work and cruel mistreatment by its indifferent owners while the girl grows up to suffer similar cruelties at the hands of her mean boyfriend. Despite his suffering, the donkey accepts its fate with as much grace as he can and when he finally dies, there is a genuine sense of transcendence to be had. Now while I must confess that I am not exactly a Bresson enthusiast by any means—for the most part, there is something about his overly severe approach to cinema that has never quite clicked with me—but this powerful and moving examination of grace in the face of adversity is one of those that does work for me and for any other serious student of the cinema. I have no doubt that before proceeding with “Wiener-Dog,” Todd Solondz sat down and watched “Au Hasard Balthazar” a few times—an activity that I would recommend to all of you as an alternative to watching “Wiener-Dog.”

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originally posted: 07/15/16 01:34:49
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2016 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2016 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Todd Solondz

Written by
  Todd Solondz

  Greta Gerwig
  Kieran Culkin
  Danny DeVito
  Ellen Burstyn
  Julie Delpy
  Zosia Mamet

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