It might be easy to mistake Wiener-Dog for Todd Solondz’s cutest and ‘nicest’ film yet, starring as it does a wandering dachshund that passes from owner to owner in the film’s 90 minutes, forming the wiggly connective backbone of four separate stories. Of course, such expectations would be foolish; this is a film that’s every bit as caustic, dark, and misanthropic as you’d expect from the man.
The general pattern of the interconnecting stories is that each subsequent owner is older than the last (with the exception of one transition, it’s not clear how the dog gets from one owner to the other, or even if it’s the same dog). The first story deals with Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a kid recovering from a serious illness whose parents decide to get him the titular dog as a present, until the dog proves too hard to train properly. The second section focuses on the travels of the shy vet’s assistant Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), a recurring character in Solondz’s work now making her third appearance in his films, who meets with a former classmate and ends up going on a road trip with him. The third story features Danny DeVito as a middle-aged hacky scriptwriting professor, a laughing stock amongst students and producers, and finally we meet Nana (Ellen Burstyn) a bitter pensioner at the end of her life, doing not much aside from lending her granddaughter money when she asks.
Throughout, none of the characters really seem to use the titular dog as anything other than a temporary companion to alleviate their loneliness and isolation from the world at large, a totem to ward it away. Although Solondz’s sense of humour is, as ever, piercingly dark and brutal, he offers a glimmer of empathy to all of his characters. The first two stories feature young characters, untainted yet by the disappointment of their lives, but it’s the latter two, with characters closer to the end than to the start of their lives where that embedded shred of sympathy becomes crucial. A lesser filmmaker could spend their time torturing their characters, as Solondz is sometimes accused of doing, but he does anything but. Instead, he depicts people who have lived deeply unhappy lives; unsure of the validity of the direction they took or the choices they made, their regrets forming a background of bitterness and pent-up frustration permeating their daily lives. They are sad figures, but they are allowed empathy precisely because we are allowed to understand them a little. That Solondz manages that despite each character getting only a quarter of the film is the mark of quality writing.
Wiener-Dog is not quite as gut-crunchingly dark as Solondz’s most famed work thus far, Happiness (1997), which in retrospect is probably not the ideal introduction to the director, as I found out the hard way. Nevertheless, brimming with a great cast, this is another fine bleak comedy from the man. The only real criticism I can perhaps level at it is that it feels rather minor in the sense of his entire oeuvre, with the film not nearly as unpredictable or intelligent as his best work. For those looking for further laughs after the film, I direct you to the negative reviews of the film on IMDB, which consist mostly of people crying about the dog.