A portrait of America through the eyes of a sausage dog and her owners, Todd Solondz’ Wiener-Dog sees a bizarre parade of melancholics and losers.
Shaggy Dog Storyby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
A female dachshund carries the weight of America’s misery on its shoulders as it is passively moved from owner to owner at different stages in their lives from childhood to old age – renamed by them each time – in Todd Solondz’s episodic road movie.
First, it’s a well-to-do couple who use the dog as a present for their little boy who’s recovering from cancer. Tracy Letts as the father and Julie Delpy as the mother embody suburban discontent and unthinking cruelty, and Delpy’s ridiculous explanation of why dogs are spayed – touching on vividly imagined dog rape, venereal disease and death – are deadpan satire. Following the dog’s digestive mishap, there’s an extremely long tracking shot of dog diarrhoea along the length of their drive with a soundtrack of Debussy’s Claire de Lune setting the movie’s dark take on life, an unforgettable collision of music and image.
The next owner is a naive, love-lorn vet’s assistant (Greta Gerwig) randomly on a road trip to Ohio with a former classmate (Kieran Culkin) scoring drugs and shooting up on the way, ending up in the home of his sister and her husband (Conor Long and Bridget Brown), who both have Down’s Syndrome. On the way, they pick up a group of mariachi musicians, longing to return to Mexico, who morosely describe America as a “big fat elephant drowning in a sea of despair”.
There’s a teasing mock intermission, where we see the dog traversing the continent from sea to shining sea waddling through all its aspects, from rural to urban and from White House to pole-dancing clubs all to the sound of a specially composed country rock score. The second half follows the dog in the custody of a failed screenwriter, played with increasingly manic desperation by Danny DeVito, who is reduced to teaching screenwriting to indifferent college students who mock his failure. And in the most numbing of all, an embittered grandmother (Ellen Burstyn) is visited by her drug-addled granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) and her flamboyant, self-obsessed black artist boyfriend Fantasy (Michael Shaw), seeking only to borrow money, leaving her seeing the visions of the other selves she could have been, and abruptly ending in a bizarre sequence that ties the episodes together.
Solondz’s America, as in any of his previous films, Happiness, Dark Horse, Welcome to the Dollhouse – is a bleak country of surreally alienated, unachieving individuals, of whom DeVito’s depressed professor in Wiener-Dog seems to represent Solondz’s satirical disillusionment with the creative process as a whole. Blackly funny at times, it looks terrific – but basically goes to show that life’s a bitch. And then you die.
Wiener-Dog premiered in the UK at the Sundance London Festival and is released on 12 August 2016 in the UK. Released on digital and DVD on 23 January 2017.