Entertainment

‘Wiener-Dog’ is a quirky, sometimes dark, but memorable film

Greta Gerwig holds the title character of “Wiener-Dog,” Todd Solondz's latest film exploration of misanthropy.
Greta Gerwig holds the title character of “Wiener-Dog,” Todd Solondz's latest film exploration of misanthropy. Amazon Studios, IFC Films

What It's About:

Behold, a bold and beautifully unapologetic and refreshingly original film, "Wiener-Dog."

From the eccentric, staunchly independent writer-director Todd Solonz, this dark and oddly compelling absurdist comedy is the flip side of a typical feel-good pets' journey. Rest assured, no dogs were harmed in the making of this movie.

A dachshund undergoes several different owners in a thread of outrageous vignettes — various levels of amusing, startling, shocking and disturbing, but mostly rooted in ordinary situations that go awry. The everyday scenarios become farcical, but all have an element of truth.

In the first leg, Danny the dad (Tracy Letts) brings home "Wiener-Dog" from a shopping center pet store. Innocuous enough, right? Mom Dina (Julie Delpy) is furious, angry about house-breaking. She doesn't take too long to get the dog spayed either, terrorizing her son, a cancer survivor, with exaggerated bleak stories.

Next, veterinary assistant Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig) rescues Weiner-Dog, and in an interesting twist of fate, meets an old classmate, Brandon McCarthy (Kieran Culkin), joining him on a road trip.

Dawn was actually the lead character in Solondz' breakout hit "Welcome to the Dollhouse" in 1995. We met her as a seventh grader then. She's an adult now, and the guy she runs into, and runs away with, was her nemesis back then — an intriguing twist.

Then, after a very funny musical interlude showcasing a goofy western-inspired song "The Ballad of the Wiener-Dog" by Tony winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the dog becomes the beloved companion of college film professor Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), which is the best segment of the film.

The final chapter is a grim tale of an opportunist granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) hitting invalid grandma (Ellen Burstyn) up for money, culminating in a bizarre twist of fate.

The movie's twists are interesting, and one never quite knows where Solondz is headed, but you want to find out.

In his funny way, he skewers pet owners who don't have the best interest of the pets in mind. In his world, the suburbs are sterile wastelands of small-minded people, parents can be subversive and harmful, and film school is pointless and pretentious. If you value free-thinking, run for the hinterlands.

Solondz has an uncompromised vision, and like it or not, he's going to stick to his bleak view of modern life.

You might not like what you see, but you will always be aware that you are seeing something unique.

Performances:

The cast is a dream. DeVito is hilarious as the burnt-out film professor while Burstyn is all in as the cantankerous and infirmed grandma. Gerwig's body language conveys the socially awkward Dawn, working well with Culkin. Tony winner Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy ("Before Sunrise") are the parents from hell in the opening tale.

What Works:

Like John Waters, Christopher Guest and other art provocateurs, Solondz is not easily digestible, but he commands attention by showing us a view askew. A sharp observer of human nature, and not a sunny side up kind of guy, he can rile folks up, but also make us laugh aloud.

As long as you know he's not going to be a 'one-size-fits-all' moviemaker, then you can adjust.

What Doesn't Work:

The opening and closing scenes are gross, so you are warned.

But this film will certainly stick in your memory long after the usual mainstream mindless entertainment has evaporated.

“Wiener-Dog”

  • Director: Todd Solondz
  • Starring: Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts, Zosia Mamet and Keaton Nigel Cooke
  • Rated: R for language and some disturbing content
  • Length: 1:30
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