Director Todd Solondz is a freaky-weird guy with an odd sense of humor to match, so it goes without saying that I kept waiting with sweaty palms and shallow breaths for something horrible to happen to the titular dog (do I really need to add a “spoiler alert” warning here)? This film is a follow-up to Solondz’s 1995 coming-of-age old “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” the disturbing indie about an unpopular middle school girl who is relentlessly bullied into an actual living hell. The writer / director stays true to his roots here, bringing his distinctive style of black comedy and dispiriting madness to the screen.
Solondz builds on his original story by reintroducing us to Dawn Weiner (Greta Gerwig), now grown up and working as a veterinary technician. When an adorable dachshund is brought in to be put down, she takes pity on the pup, liberates him from the animal hospital, and sets off on an ill-fated road trip with Brandon (Kieran Culkin), one of her many abusers from the first film. This sets off a chain of events for the little dog as we briefly meet the people who come into and fall out of his life all too quickly.
The movie’s four major storylines are evenly split 50/50 in their overall success. The very best features Gerwig and Culkin, both giving surprisingly physical performances (hunched shoulders, lowered head) so raw and naturally rough around the edges that I’m sure to remember them at the end of the year.
Second best is the story about a bitter, home-bound grandma (Ellen Burstyn) and her free-spirited granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) who pays a visit after 4 years because she and her sketchy artist boyfriend need money. It’s a cynical tale of the meaning of life, and it has Solondz written all over it.
Unfortunately, the remaining linear storylines with Danny DeVito as an irrelevant yet arrogant university film professor and a particularly foul opening sequence and unpleasant story about “breaking a dog’s will” with Julie Delphy and Keaton Cooke (in one of the worst child actor performances I’ve ever seen) served to sink this movie more than keep it afloat.
Most of the scenes that worked featured the adorable little waddle-walking wiener dog (including an absolutely gleefully bizarre intermission break that got funnier and funnier as it went on), but sadly as the movie progresses, we see less and less of the charming pup. Plus there’s something uncomfortably cruel and overwhelmingly sad about a series of unhappy episodes that share in the life of a dog that’s juggled and constantly moved from one home to another.
While I appreciate the true independent voice of Solondz and his distinct understanding of bitter melancholy, this movie didn’t succeed on enough levels for me to recommend it.
“Wiener Dog” is a series of stories interconnected by the admittedly adorable title character. Some of these stories work, and some of them don’t. Some of Director Todd Solondz previous efforts (like “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness“) were as inspired as they were upsetting, “Wiener Dog” was neither. It was a middle-of-the-road effort that is, and will be, easily forgotten. On the strength of the two “good” stories, I give it: 3 stars.