Todd Solondz's films have always been about the quiet struggles in dark corners. His 1989 debut, Fear, Anxiety, and Depression, pretty much tells you that in the title, but it was his sophomore effort, 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse, a coming-of-age tale down all the wrong paths, that cemented that notion and branded Solondz an indie auteur to watch for.
Solondz's latest, Wiener-Dog, is a sequel of sorts to Dollhouse as that film's protagonist, Dawn Wiener, is one of several owners of the film's titular dachshund. This is not the first mention of Dawn in Solondz' cinematic universe; her name also popped up in the director's 2004 flick Palindromes, which featured the travails of her cousin Aviva played by seven actors of varying race, age and gender. Sadly, it was revealed early on in Palindromes that Dawn had committed suicide. With Wiener-Dog, it's unknown if Solondz has had a change of heart or if this film take places before Dawn's death. Either way, Dawn "Wiener Dog" Wiener is back, with Greta Gerwig taking over for Dollhouse's Heather Matarazzo.
In Solondz's latest, the titular pup evokes, much in the same way the onerous ass does in Robert Bresson's timeless classic Au Hasard, Balthazar (1966), the true nature of its handlers. Just how humane are they behind closed doors with no one but the dog as a mute witness. But unlike Au Hasard, Balthazar's donkey, Christ-like and in ways, more human than the people around it, Wiener-Dog is just a furry prop, however sad and vulnerable, that is passed from one set of hands to the next to elicit the truthful testimony of Solondz's troubled souls.
The dog's first owner, a boy named Remi recovering from cancer (Keaton Nigel Cooke) is a kind soul, but his father (playwright Tracy Letts) is a draconian asshole. "Heel, motherfucker, heel!" he shouts as he drags Wiener-Dog down the street. The dog's fate is ultimately sealed when Remi, in an act of bonding kindness feeds it granola, and as a matter of nature, it produces an endless trail of liquid brown shit throughout the house and down the sidewalk.
In the middle of the film there’s an intermission break — the movie is a spry 90 minutes in case you were wondering — where the dog takes a sojourn across America with rotating backdrops of iconic landscapes and a flag waving anthem to propel it along. It’s a droll, cheeky curio that may not give all a cause to salivate, but in the bigger context, it idiosyncratically underscores how Solondz sardonically views the universe.
When we return, the dog is, without explanation of transition, owned by a film professor (Danny DeVito) struggling to get his latest script sold and remain relevant to the student body that’s losing respect for him. Solondz who is very open about the struggles of getting independent films of such dark ilk made, teaches film at NYU, where he dropped out to pursue the directing chair. Much of what goes on in Solondz’s films are clear reflections of his life and, as with the thematic recurrence of Dawn Wiener, he’s become an artist invested in the process of re-examining the past in the present. Of Solondz’s eight features, five have been linked. His other follow up, Life During Wartime (2009), revisited several of the characters from Happiness (1998).
The good news for Dawn is that she’s still with us and is now a veterinarian’s aide who refuses to put Wiener-Dog down. The illicit action triggers a road trip to Ohio and garners Dawn a shot at romance. Dawn, here as in Dollhouse, will say yes to anything (crystal meth) to keep the ball in play. It’s only fitting that she’s played by Gerwig (Frances Ha) as there seems to be a dictum that Ms. Gerwig must appear in every independent film made these days.
The themes of mortality and the eternal elusiveness of happiness pervade Wiener-Dog, which is nothing new in a Solondz film. However, the characters here, like the young Dawn in Dollhouse, feel constructed with more delicate care than some of the director’s more recent fare. It helps too that the actors echo the effort with great heart in their poignant renderings. The culmination is both touching and acrid.