Dawn Wiener lives. If you’ve kept up on the caustic career of Todd Solondz, this information should come as a surprise. The writer-director introduced Dawn, a painfully unpopular 12-year-old (perfectly played by Heather Matarazzo), in his 1995 breakthrough Welcome To The Dollhouse. He then killed her off(screen) in Palindromes, revealing that the unhappy girl became an unhappy woman and took her own life—a bitter pill to swallow, even for those who could see the harsh logic of this arc. But with Wiener-Dog, his new film, Solondz doesn’t just walk back that suicide; he also paints a (marginally) brighter future for his middle-school misfit, casting Greta Gerwig as a (marginally) more adjusted, thirtysomething version of the character. “You look pretty good,” a face from the past tells her with some surprise, and for a perennial punching bag like Dawn Wiener, that backhanded compliment doesn’t sound so backhanded. Coming from Solondz’s poison pen, it almost counts as glowing.
Has the man behind Happiness made a movie that could unironically go by that same title? Has he lost his serrated
edge, his taste for comedies that cut like tragedies? Don’t count on it. This isn’t quite the Dawn Wiener underdog comeback story—in part because Dawn actually only appears for a small fraction of the film’s runtime. Though prematurely billed as an official Dollhouse sequel, Wiener-Doghas an even more tenuous relationship to its predecessor than Life During Wartime had to Happiness. A four-part anthology vaguely organized around the theme of life as an inexorable march to death, the film is named not just for its resurrected heroine—cruelly assigned that alias by her classmates—but also for an actual dachshund whose changing ownership provides these biting short stories a loose connective tissue. If the idea of Solondz tackling mortality through a canine version of Au Hasard Balthazar sounds dispiriting, at least the abridged nature of each narrative prevents too much piling on.
Wiener-Dog’s laughs are typically sour, but the filmmaker hasn’t landed this many of them since Storytelling, his last
multipart feature. Solondz smartly bookends the project with its best vignettes; excepting, perhaps, an inspired, Western-themed intermission sequence that has to be seen to be believed, the first segment is the flat-out funniest. Here, a little boy (Charlie Tahan) who’s survived cancer dotes on the elongated pooch his father brings home. Pets can help parents teach kids about life, death, and responsibility; in Wiener-Dog, such conversations turn into opportunities to exert questionable values on an impressionable mind, with Dad (playwright Tracy Letts) preaching the merit of breaking wills while Mom (Julie Delpy) shares an amusingly dark anecdote about a rapist dog. Wildly inappropriate discussions with kids are a Solondz speciality, but this miniature cringe comedy also finds time to spoof the opening shot of Boyhood and for an extended scatological gag set to “Clair De Lune.”