Anyone stumbling into “Wiener-Dog” with the expectation of another “Old Yeller” is doomed to disappointment, and may leave rather stunned. This is a Todd Solondz film, after all, and like all the director’s work, it exudes a nearly unremitting mood of deadpan misanthropy so thick that, in this case, even the Dachshund of the title ultimately can’t endure the misery around her. Viewers in tune with his sensibility, however, will enjoy the abundant gallows humor the film affords.
The picture is actually a series of short stories, beginning with a tender tale about Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a young cancer survivor presented with the dog, which he gives the name of the title, by his father (Tracy Letts), much to the annoyance of his wife (Julie Delpy). Though the boy immediately bonds with the pooch, neither of the self-absorbed parents has any patience with it, and after the kid makes the mistake of feeding Weiner-Dog a granola bar, the resultant explosion of doggie diarrhea (captured in a long, loving tracking shot set to Debussy’s “Claire de lune”) leads to the animal being unceremoniously taken away to be euthanized.
This opening vignette is filled with delicious moments, some involving the angelic boy and his irritable father, but the most memorable being a monologue that Delpy speaks to her worried son on the virtues of spaying, illustrated with a story she claims happened to her as a girl back in France. The grotesqueness of what she says is only accentuated by the matter-of-factness of Delpy’s delivery, a cheeky commentary on modern, supposedly enlightened parenting methods.
The second chapter begins when Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), the grown-up version of the protagonist of Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1996) and now the aide to the vet about to put the dog to sleep, runs off with Weiner-Dog instead. She quickly links up with Brandon (Kieran Culkin), an old classmate, and decides to go off to Ohio with him. They wind up at the happy home of his brother (Connor Long) and sister-in-law (Bridget Brown), both of whom suffer from Down’s Syndrome, and with whom Dawn decides to leave the dog as she and Brendan drive off to heaven knows where in his battered van.
After a kooky “intermission” advertisement set to a genial song called “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog” by Marc Shaiman, the pooch’s odyssey continues. She now belongs to Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a teacher at a New York film school who’s on the verge of being fired even as his script is going nowhere in Hollywood. At the point of personal and professional collapse, he devises a scheme of revenge against the world in which the dog will play a major role.
But Wiener-Dog survives her master’s despair, and winds up as the pet of a brutally cynical house-ridden old lady (Ellen Burstyn), who’s visited after a long absence by her self-absorbed junkie granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) and her florid boyfriend Fantasy (Michael Shaw) in search of money. Nana gets rid of them as soon as possible, only to be visited by visions of herself as a girl (Melo Ludwig), who quietly remind her of the routes in life she might have taken instead of becoming the bitter, lonely woman she has become. Wiener-Dog, whom the woman had named Cancer out of bile, apparently decides she’s had enough of this succession of troubled owners.
Each of Solondz’s quartet of tales has its moments, but those that bookend the series are the high points, long enough to express his misanthropic attitude but compressed enough to do so without becoming hectoring about it. The third episode aims some sharp arrows at the film school business, but tends to repeat itself on its way to a conclusion that doesn’t quite come off, in more ways than one, and the second rambles, though it’s notable for adopting a nicer tone than the others. The cast fit themselves smoothly into the director’s idiosyncratic worldview, with Delpy and Burstyn coming off as especially in tune with his vision. And one shouldn’t overlook the soulful eyes of Wiener-Dog, who has a particularly nice solo scene under the opening credits.
“Wiener-Dog” will hardly appeal to a mass audience, but what would you expect of a Todd Solondz film? It is what it is, and those who have appreciated his prior pictures will find it of a piece with them.