Say what you will about Todd Solondz’s body of work, but there is no denying that he is not one of our most creative voices working in cinema today. While I am definitely not on board for every one of his projects, I always walk away from them, even the ones I dislike, happy that they exist in this world. Everything that Solondz is doing with his latest film, Wiener-Dog, always caught me by surprise. Whether it be the hilarious intermission following the second of the four vignettes in the narrative or just Julie Delpy giving a long, drawn-out monologue about spaying dogs, there is something so fresh about everything that Solondz commits to that it is really hard for me put this down; because quite a bit of this is not successful.
Solondz’s vignette structure certainly comes with its upsides and its downsides. Just about everyone who watches Solondz’s latest is going to end up walking away with a particular preference to which vignette or two they preferred, and which one or two they didn’t. The opener is an absolute knockout, as Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts play two self-absorbed Suburban parents as their son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) immediately falls in love with his Dachshund, whom he names wiener-dog.
What makes Solondz one of the most unique storytellers working today is his total nonchalant approach to all of the humor that fills his screenplay from cover to cover. Whether it be Remi’s high-pitched voice calling his Dachshund “wiener-dog” or Ellen Burstyn’s gigantic glasses, that take up half of her face, there is something so quietly humorous about Solondz’s general presentation of every little detail. After listening to interviews with Solondz from Sundance, it’s clear that he is just doing what he himself finds funny and really doesn’t care if audience jives with it or not, which, for me, is one of the most admirable qualities in a filmmaker.
Certainly Solondz’s overall vision does not always for me as well. Take the second vignette, which finds Greta Gerwig as a grown-up Dawn Wiener, a character from Solondz’s cult-favorite Welcome to the Dollhouse. Bumping into Brandon (Kieran Culkin), an old classroom of her’s from school at a roadside mini-mart, Dawn finds herself embarking on an impromptu road trip. Having to break some news to his brother, who suffers from Down’s Syndrome, Brandon takes Dawn and her very own wiener-dog along with him for the ride.
Considering my eternal love for just about Greta Gerwig does as an actress, I was shocked that this ended up as my least favorite of the segments. This is certainly Solondz’s most “positive” of the vignettes, which is why I think this packs less of a punch as the others did for me. I find his view on the world to be one of the most open and completely telling portraits of who we really as a community. Of course to an exaggerated degree, Solondz’s cynical outlook on the world is always used for comedic effect, which doesn’t always translate to screen properly for me. With this vignette, it carries this aimless feeling to it that lacks any real interest to the point where I was beginning to lose interest in what I was watching.
I think even the biggest detractors to Wiener-Dog are not going to be able to deny the greatness to Solondz’s intermission that I would not dare ruin for anyone. This sequence alone should be enough to get everybody into a theater to see it. On top of that, Ed Lachman’s cinematography here is surely not getting the praise it deserves so far. His dynamic color palette in each vignette vividly tells us as much about our characters as Solondz’s script. In the third segment, Lachman shoots Danny DeVito’s Dave Schmerz, a lonely New York City college professor, with these wide, desolate shots, encapturing the loneliness that has plagued his life.
DeVito’s tale is certainly Solondz’s most cynical of the bunch, which is why I am certain is the reason why it played so well for me. From everything to the administration, all the way down to the students, Solondz does not hold back on his full-on attack of the college system. Whether it be the administration waving tenure in front of Schmerz’s face or all of his students getting fed up with his out-of-touch approach to screenwriting, I found myself so in love with everything that Solondz was bringing up. It is something that is rarely ever explored to such an extreme degree like the way Solondz does here, and the fact he punches it all into just about twenty minutes is downright audacious filmmaking. DeVito’s segment is a never-ending foray of anger that does not stop until the very last moment. In a world where most of the time social commentary constantly feels as humdrum as a dream sequence in a horror, this sets a keystone to the fact that there is still so much more to be expressed in this world that hasn’t already been committed to the screen.
Following up DeVito’s segment is certainly no easy task, but with the help of Ellen Burstyn and Zosia Mamet, the drop-off is luckily not too significant. Following Mamet’s Zoe, Solondz closes out the film with an examination of family dynamics. When her artist-boyfriend, who is named Fantasy (Michael James Shaw), is in need of money to help fund his upcoming art exhibit, Zoe visits her dying grandmother played by none other than Ellen Burstyn. Solondz is a master at establishing the tension within a room, and my God, does he do it so well here. As Zoe visits her dying grandmother for the first time in almost four whole years, the awkward tension in the room is at an all-time high, as Burstyn sits alongside her very own Dachshund, who she named Cancer. Yes, the dog’s name is, in fact, Cancer.
Solondz capitalizes upon every ounce of tension in the room and uses it to help paint a detailed portrait of their troubled relationship. Exploiting the monetary greed that hampers so many families, this is certainly Solondz’s most honest of the four vignettes. His screenplay dissects this idea of manipulating those who love you solely for your one’s own gain. Burstyn perfectly captures all of the disappointment that her character has towards her granddaughter, as she only comes around looking for money. Despite this rather somber aspect that this final story carries with it, Solondz still manages to keep the laughs coming, but it is not until when Zoe finally leaves her Nana does Solondz begin to draw out the morbid laughs to her situation. Even up until the final shot in the film, Solondz remains committed to his cynical nature — leaving the audience with a final impressions that will either strike fuse or leave you walking out of the theater more in love with Solondz is doing than ever before.