Thursday, July 14, 2016

Movie Review: Wiener-Dog

Directed by: Todd Solondz.
Written by: Todd Solondz.
Starring: Keaton Nigel Cooke (Remi), Tracy Letts (Danny), Julie Delpy (Dina), Greta Gerwig (Dawn Wiener), Kieran Culkin (Brandon), Connor Long (Tommy), Bridget Brown (April), Charlie Tahan (Warren), Danny DeVito (Dave Schmerz), Patrick Caroll Jr. (Garrett), Molly Gray (Ariadne), Ari Graynor (Carol Steinhart), Kett Turton (Director), Ellen Burstyn (Nana), Marcella Lowery (Yvette), Zosia Mamet (Zoe), Michael James Shaw (Fantasy), Melo Ludwig (Young Nana). 
Todd Solondz is one of the most uncompromising directors currently at work. His breakout film, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996) and its follow-up, Happiness (1998), were both huge critical hits, and established his brand of mixing humor and empathy with characters you normally would not want to emphasize with. His films make you uncomfortable because of their subject matter – which most often touches upon life in suburbia, and deeply troubled families. A trademark of his films is often very uncomfortable conversations between children and their parents – where the children ask earnest, honest questions, and are given horrifying answers. For reasons I still don’t entirely understand, starting with Storytelling (2001) – his follow-up to Happiness – Solon’s films haven’t gotten quite the same degree of attention and critical love as his previous films. Perhaps some see him as a one-trick pony, repeating himself time and again, but I still find his films provocative, uncomfortably funny, and deeply empathetic to his characters, even if many of them are bad people. Palindromes (2004) in particular is an under seen and underrated film. There seems to be longer and longer between his films in recent years – perhaps an indication of funding issues, but aside from his last film, 2011’s Dark Horse, he has yet to make a film I didn’t really like. With Wiener-Dog, he is back on track.
The film is really a quartet of short stories that are not centered on the title character – an adorable wiener dog, but rather are about its various owners. The film contains perhaps the most hopeful conclusion to a story Solondz has ever filmed – but that’s at the half way point of the film – from there, he plunges us into abject sorrow and heartbreak, in a way that only he can (the fact that the hope is broken from the despair by an intermission – including a jaunty song, is kind of brilliant).
The first story is about Remi (Keaton Nigel Cook) – a boy of about 10, a cancer survivor, whose father (Tracy Letts) gives him the wiener dog as a pet, much to his mother’s (Julie Delphy’s) chagrin. She pretty much hates the dog, and it isn’t long before her husband has come to despise it as well. But for little Remi, Wiener-Dog is the best pet he could ask for – and he adores her. There is a classic Solondz scene in the car between the Remi and his mother as they are taking the dog to the vet to get fixed over just why that needs to be done – with Delphy delivering a brilliant performance as she sympathetically explains that if the dog doesn’t get fixed, it will likely be raped and murdered (by a foreign dog, who shouldn’t even be there in the first place, of course). There is another scene that mirrors this one later, about death – after Remi makes the mistake of giving the dog something that causes diarrhea, which is the last straw for his father.
The second story is the one that is actually full of hope. It stars Greta Gerwig as a grown up version of Dawn Wiener, from Welcome to the Dollhouse (and back from the dead, as we saw her funeral in 2004’s Palindromes). Life hasn’t turned out that well for Dawn – she’s an assistant at the vet, who takes the dog before it can be killed, but doesn’t appear to have much else going on, and is as awkward and lonely as ever. Then she meets Brandon – the bully from Welcome to the Dollhouse, who had threatened to rape her, before the two ended up in some sort of weird, quasi-relationship. In Welcome to the Dollhouse, their story ends when Brandon runs away – and Dawn realizes that his home life is even worse than hers was. In Wiener-Dog though, Solondz grants these characters at least hope for a better future. Dawn has seemingly gotten away from her messed up family, and Brandon is, at the very least, trying to set his life straight by the end. Their segment ends with hope – something Solondz rarely does.
It’s from this point on however, that Solondz truly plunges the audience into despair – with two stories that offer no real hope. The first is about Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito – giving his best performance in years) – a sad sack screenwriter who hasn’t had much success, who now teaches at a film school, where he has to suffer through the smirking and mockery or a younger generation, who do not want to listen to him. Schmerz is a sympathetic character to be sure – but Solondz also makes it clear that he is a hack – a writer who wants to do something true and honest, but ends up selling out, to include a bunch of shtick in his work – which still doesn’t get him anywhere closer to success either. He is a classic Solondz character in many respects, and the segment ends right where it should.
The final segment is about a grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), who receives a visit for her granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) – who she hasn’t seen in years, and her artist boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael James Shaw). The grandmother knows why her granddaughter is visiting – for money – and she makes no real effort to hide her feelings from her. If the granddaughter is a spoiled, entitled millennial, than the grandmother is a miserable person – who has named the dog Cancer. The film takes a surreal turn near the end – which works brilliantly – before coming to an ending that is absolutely pitiless.
Wiener-Dog is a film, ultimately, about the inescapability of death. The characters in the film try, but know that ultimately, they cannot escape the same fate as the rest of us. They are selfish in many ways – assholes and sad sacks, incapable of change even if they want to. The film isn’t quite the masterpiece that Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness or Palindromes are. Those films push deeper into their characters, and in the case of Palindromes, is a slippery moral puzzle, where Solondz is constantly pulling the rug out from underneath the audience – forcing us to change our minds from scene to scene. What Wiener-Dog is though is a return to form for Solondz, after the misfire of Dark Horse, and an unapologetic one. Say what you will about Solondz – he isn’t about to become David Schmerz.

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