Monday, 22 August 2016


Todd Solondz is cinema's architect of miserabilism, but never have his powers been put to such disquieting effect in his latest film, Wiener-Dog, a film that runs through misanthropy in the first ten minutes, and continues at breakneck pace towards sadism, cruelty, and outright nastiness. It really is a piece of work, even more so than "Happiness", his established masterpiece, a film which juggled themes of child sex abuse and the futility of marriage quite deftly.

But whereas the content of that film was objectively more shocking, Solondz imbued his screenplay with enormous empathy, which elevated the material into something great. There is very little empathy here, and the work is all the more dour for it. It's interesting, because the plot is one that could be ultimately heart-warming; it tells the tale of a sausage dog (hence the title) who passes through four different owners over the course of its life. It's sort of like Au Hasard Balthazar directed by a suicidal Aki Kaurismaki.

The first owners are a big tip-off; the dog is bought by two chilly parents (Tracy Letts, Julie Delpy) for their young son (Keaton Nigel Cooke), who has recently (we gather) survived a bout with leukaemia. The conversations between parent and child are not devoid of warmth, but the impression we get is that reproduction definitely was not for them. Delpy botches the explanation of why the dog has to be spayed, and then later has to spin a yarn about how a dog of hers was "raped" (by a stray called Mohammed!), all because it wasn't spayed. It's the only truly hilarious scene in the whole film, and Delpy plays up the white panic to brilliant effect. Letts is much more aggressive, his maxim with the dog being "heel, motherfucker!".

An ill-advised granola bar leads the dog to be put down (leading to a funny musing on the randomness of death, delivered by Delpy to her son), but events transpire and the dog is saved by Dawn Wieners, from Solondz's debut "Welcome To The Dollhouse" (now a vet, here played by Greta Gerwig). Dawn hasn't changed; she thanks ex-bully Kieran Culkin when he says she looks like the dog, and then takes up his invite of a road trip to Ohio.

This is the segment with the most pathos, where Solondz embraces some genuine sincerity, particularly in the scene where Culkin tells his brother Tommy (Connor Long) that their father has passed away from alcoholism.

From here, the dog passes into the arms of Danny DeVito, playing a failing screenwriter, out of place and ignored in his position as faculty member of a film school. The film dabbles with culture shock here (and has the least to do with the dog), and mines effective fodder from having DeVito deal with a young upstart who wants to make a film exploring gender identity, for example, and being told by faculty leader to be more positive.

Finally (after quite the turn of events), it lands with Ellen Burstyn, playing a blind woman on the close to death, receiving pleas for money from her granddaughter and living with a carer/friend.

This is a film with a great eye for detail; take Culkin's order for Gerwig to "wait", in the car, or DeVito's students assuming him to be a homophobic dinosaur, or the way the ending lampoons with remarkable effectiveness the old maxim of achieving immortality through your art. Typically, Solondz is very good at directing the children in the film. It is also composed with an understated formality by cinematographer Edward Lachman, and it's amusingly self-aware, replete with interlude and opening credits.

Ultimately, though, this film is something of a zero-sum game. It piles on cynical observation after cynical observation to the point where, after a time, it just stops landing. There's no denying Solondz's talents, and this is by no means a bad film, it is consistently well-written, but nobody would forgive you for deciding that it's just not worth the effort.

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