Wiener-Dog,’ the Tail That Wags Through a Few Bitter Lives

February 25, 2018

Some filmmakers range across genres and styles, reinventing themselves from one project to the next. Todd Solondz is the other kind. At this point in their careers, we don’t expect documentary-style naturalism from Wes Anderson, bittersweet romance from Quentin Tarantino or violent action from Whit Stillman. And we don’t turn to Mr. Solondz for warm affirmations of human decency.

Across eight features in 27 years, the awfulness of our species — in particular its North American, suburban varieties — has served Mr. Solondz as both premise and punch line. You can take his misanthropy or leave it. You can also vacillate (as I have preferred to do) according to the swings of your own mood or the particulars of story and performance, but the axioms of his universe are remarkably consistent. Selfishness trumps empathy. Intimacy is the surest route to humiliation. Ambition is the handmaiden of failure. Cruelty is pervasive, innocence is toxic, and the most likable people are the ones who are most honest in their hatefulness.

“Wiener-Dog” dramatizes these assumptions in the inscrutable presence of a nonhuman observer, a dachshund who goes by a few different names and endures the company of a variety of masters. A New Jersey couple (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy) bring the dog home to provide companionship for their sickly son (Keaton Nigel Cooke). This family — the blustery dad; the passive-aggressive mom; the wide-eyed, question-asking child — are the most canonically Solondzian figures in the movie, its ground zero of upper-middle-class entitlement.

But their presence, like nearly everyone else’s, is brief. This is an anthology of dark, deadpan comic vignettes, punctuated by an amusing fake intermission and sealed with a grim sight gag. Wiener-Dog (who is also called Doody and Cancer) is spayed and nearly euthanized, strapped with explosives and subjected to a cross-country car trip with an aimless young not-quite-couple (Greta Gerwig and Kieran Culkin), one of whom seems to be Dawn Wiener herself, the heroine of Mr. Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and as such an almost mythical figure in his imaginative world.

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