★ ★ ★ ½
Fans of Todd Solondz’s work will recall “wiener-dog” as the epithet hurled at middle-school scapegoat Dawn Wiener in his art-house hit Welcome to the Dollhouse. It’s tempting to conclude that the misanthropic director of Happiness and Palindromes must feel some sort of tenderness toward canines, particularly dachshunds, but his anthology film Wiener-Dog proves otherwise. Unlike Michael Haneke, that other cinematic merchant of doom, Solondz doesn’t throw traumatic events at the audience like a drink in the face. Instead, the horror in his movies feels more like a slow suffocation in a comfortable living room where someone’s turned on the gas.
Wiener-Dog’s narrative is broken up into four segments, of which the beginning vignette is the most successful: A cancer-survivor child (Keaton Nigel Cooke) is jubilant at receiving a dachshund as a pet, but his parents (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy) resent the fact that the dog is unruly and not yet housebroken. They quietly resent their child, too, and seem to wish for his death in the subtlest and cruelest of ways, reassuring him during trips to the vet that dogs want to be spayed and it’s wonderful to be put to sleep.
The second story, about a tenderhearted vet tech (Greta Gerwig) who makes an impulsive decision to go on a road trip with a jaded former classmate (Kieran Culkin), is less successful, as is the following vignette with Danny DeVito as a washed-up film-school professor who’s desperately trying to get someone in Hollywood to read a script of his. (Anyone who’s been to film or art school will appreciate the barbed scenes in which self-aggrandizing undergrads pontificate about their boneheaded projects—a characterization perhaps inspired by Solondz’s own tenure as a professor at the Tisch School of the Arts.)
The final segment recaptures the richness of the first, with Ellen Burstyn as a decrepit artist’s model who is visited by her nouveau-bohemian granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) and the latter’s installation-artist boyfriend (Michael James Shaw). What unites all of these stories is the ubiquitous presence of a dachshund that, despite doing very little aside from producing the occasional whine, nonetheless gets a rousing theme song penned by composer Marc Shaiman (probably best known for writing the lyrics for the musical version of Hairspray).
Despite several standout performances and the linking element of a wiener-dog in every story, these tales fail to add up to any grand theme or resolution. This movie is a tone poem on Solondz’s usual topics: the plastic banality of American life; the casual cruelty of average, well-meaning people; the crushing of innocence and joy; and fantasy scenes that illuminate the poignant grandeur of being alive with an intensity that pierces like a bullet. Wiener-Dog dissolves immediately in the mind after viewing, like a particularly bitter fluff of cotton candy, yet its intriguing aftertaste still lingers.