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Dustin Putman

2016 Sundance Film Festival
Wiener-Dog  (2016)
3 Stars
Directed by Todd Solondz.
Cast: Greta Gerwig, Kieran Culkin, Danny DeVito, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Julie Delpy, Ellen Burstyn, Zosia Mamet, Tracy Letts, Connor Long, Bridget Brown, Andrew Pang, Rigoberto Garcia, Devin Druid, Trey Gerrald, Jen Ponton, Charlie Tahan, Rigoberto Garcia, Melo Ludwig.
2016 – 90 minutes
Not Rated
Reviewed at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival by Dustin Putman for, January 23, 2016.
A semi-companion piece to Todd Solondz's 1996 Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner "Welcome to the Dollhouse," "Wiener-Dog" is an alternately tender, blunt and acridly satiric meditation on the process of life and death in all its natural, bitter forms. That earlier coming-of-age film's bullied 11-year-old heroine Dawn Wiener is revisited as an adult (now played by Greta Gerwig, taking over for Heather Matarazzo), but the central throughline is precisely what the title implies: a cute, plucky dachshund—or perhaps a series of dachshunds—coming in and out of the lives of its owners. If this sounds like the setup for an airier, gentler Solondz, think again; while the picture is not without a certain warmth, it also isn't afraid to get plenty dark, and without warning.

The narrative unspools through a series of four extended vignettes, each one delving into the thorny subject of mortality. Young cancer survivor Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) is overjoyed when his dad, Danny (Tracy Letts), brings home a wiener dog for him, but mom Dina (Julie Delpy) isn't so sure the family is ready to take on a pet. When the pup falls ill from food poisoning, atheist Dina gives the inquisitive Remi a surprisingly comforting lesson in the importance of love and togetherness in the here and now. Tasked with putting the dog down, vet tech Dawn Wiener instead takes her home and nurses her back to health. When she has a chance run-in with an old middle-school classmate from the wrong side of the tracks, Brandon McCarthy (Kieran Culkin), she packs up the dog and spontaneously leaves her old life behind for a mysterious road trip to Ohio.

In New York, longtime university film professor Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito, in one of the best roles he's had in years) is told by his doctor he is a ticking time bomb if he does not lose weight and start eating healthy—two things to which he is unwilling to commit. Suspecting that time is running out, he has compromised the truth of his feature screenplay in hopes of selling it to a Hollywood studio, but keeps getting the runaround from agents. With his professional future on the line and a dachshund as his only companion, he is determined to create a new destiny for himself, no matter the price. A wiener dog is also the only true friend of the crotchety Nana (Ellen Burstyn), who is unexpectedly paid a visit by granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) under increasingly tenuous circumstances.

"Wiener-Dog" proves disappointing in a structure Solondz seemingly abandons midway through, forgetting to include the same connecting tissue in the later segments that he did in the early ones. As a thematically interwoven anthology, however, each individual story is potent, affecting and thoughtful. Anyone familiar with the director's work knows he loves pitch-black humor with a nihilistic streak, and he more than lives up to this as the film rounds the corner to the startling finish line. Some may call Solondz cruel for the bleak depths he dares to plunder, but there is a definite method to his creative madness—and also, for that matter, a resigned empathy for his forlornly fallible characters. He loves them all, wiener dog included, which makes the film's final minutes such a cruel but necessary punch to the gut.
© 2016 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman

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