The canine star of this deadpan black comedy, which also stars Danny DeVito, has a mute dignity that raises him above all the disillusioned humans in it.
Like all of Todd Solondz’s movies, Wiener-Dog is a black comedy with the comedy removed, leaving just the black: a tarry, sticky, dense residue of bleakness and callousness. It is a portmanteau film of sorts, an anthology of short stories linked by a single element: a dachshund – maybe the same dachshund in all episodes, or possibly not. Around a third of the way through, it becomes unclear if it is a single dog who has been passed from one set of characters to the next, and we have missed some of the connecting narrative links, or if it is a different dog.
Some people call theirs “Wiener-Dog”, which was also the nickname of Dawn Wiener, the heroine of Solondz’s 1995 film Welcome to the Dollhouse. One character doesn’t call his dachshund anything, but morosely looks at a bunch of sausages, ie wieners, being grilled in a cafe window. Others decide on the name “Doody” or “Cancer”. In a weird way, Wiener-Dog reminded me of Anthony Asquith’s 1964 portmanteau film The Yellow Rolls-Royce, which was written by Terence Rattigan and tells three tales about different people who come to own the same yellow Rolls-Royce. We see how that extravagant car brings to the surface each of its owners’ vanities, yearnings, vulnerabilities and fears.
Wiener-Dog does the same thing, but in far gloomier style. We see how the dachshund is a child substitute, or an adult substitute, or a love substitute. Or, in the case of the second story – which, sensationally, almost suggests that Solondz is feeling good about himself and the world – it is the means by which love might be achieved. Actual love, not a pathetic or tragicomic parody of love.
And it is a very lovable-looking dog, in its goofily inelegant way.
In one story, Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts play Dina and Danny, an uptight, unhappy couple whose young son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) is recovering from cancer. This echoes with a later story. Remi gets the dog as a present to cheer him up. In the next story, Dawn (Greta Gerwig), a veterinarian’s assistant, hopes the dachshund is the means by which she might be able to melt the heart of Brandon (Kieran Culkin), whom she knew in grade school as a notorious bully.
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