Anyone else a little hungry?
A cute, lovely and adorable dachshund puppy finds himself shuffled around a wild list of wacky individuals – some good, others, well, maybe not so much. The first suitors for the dog is a little boy and his two parents (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts). The kid loves the dog, going so far as to call him “Wiener-dog”, but the parents aren’t too stoked about the pooch. Eventually, the dog gets shipped to Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), who is now a veterinarian and meeting up with an old classmate of hers (Kiernan Culkin), who takes her on a weird trip. Then, the dog meets Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a film historian who hasn’t made a decent script in nearly two decades, hates his job, is constantly under pressure from the people around him, and has no clue what the hell he wants to do with the rest of his life. And then, finally, there’s an aging, nearly blind lady (Ellen Burstyn), who gets an unexpected visit from her needy and relatively bratty granddaughter (Zosia Mamet), who may or may not have some sinister intentions with her popping-up.
Todd Solondz is obviously not an easy writer or director to get used to. However, when you do actually “get used” to him, magical and wondrous things can happen. Rather than feeling as if he’s being salacious and vile for no apparent reason other than just to be so, the dirty and sometimes disgusting material and themes in his stories take on a new light and seem honest. Honest about the human condition and just honest about the world we live in. Solondz is subtle with what he’s trying to say, but at the same time, not. He tells these stories of these odd, leftovers of society, giving them all the attention and focus that they probably don’t deserve and, well, making them seem at least somewhat compelling.
Yeah, he’s dirty and all that, but yeah, it works.
That’s why with Wiener-Dog, Solondz gets another chance at approaching an ensemble tale, with all sorts of wacky and wonderful characters to play and toy around with. The results, as anyone can expect from his other ensemble pieces like Storytelling and Happiness, are interesting; you can tell that Solondz is more comfortable when he has a lot more space and room to work and stretch his legs out in. Anything where Solondz is tied down to one particular story, doesn’t quite cut it.
And when he has the chance to play elsewhere and not be tied down, you get a sense that Solondz is having fun; in Wiener-Dog, there’s the usual cruelty and cynicism that we’ve come to expect from Solondz, but it’s all become so expected by now, that it’s actually kind of fun. You know that his characters are all going to be horrible to one another, saying things that they shouldn’t say, and deadpanning some pretty silly dialogue. And yet, it all works. We have come to learn and expect this from Solondz and he isn’t hiding behind anything.
That’s because, if you get right down to it, Solondz is a real sweetheart deep down inside and truly does want to show these character’s lives as being, yes, the butt-ends of jokes, gags and puns, but at the same time, earnest and heartwarming; he likes to poke fun and kick people when they’re down, but the fact that he’s showing these characters at all means that he at least has some bit of respect for them. So it’s obvious that when he has the chance to work with more characters, on a bigger playing-field, he can go anywhere he wants and however he wants, giving us all sorts of small, but detailed stories of these weird people’s lives.
But it’s also why Wiener-Dog isn’t as good as it should be.
There’s at least four stories in Wiener-Dog, two are meh, one is good, and one is terrific. Through it all, the cast is perfectly game for this material and great for it. Some people far better off than others, but mostly, everyone seems like they knew what to expect from a Todd Solondz film and brought the right amount of craziness, mixed with surrealism that plays out in almost every performer’s benefit.
But really, it’s Danny DeVito’s performance, character and story that steals the show. In literally 20 minutes or so of the movie, DeVito’s story is the most compelling, interesting and entertaining, because we actually want to see what happens with this character. There’s never a sense that we know where his story is going to go, nor do we get a full idea of who he is; we know he’s a sad sack and more than depressed with his life, but what’s he going to do with that? And better yet, at what cost? DeVito’s character is the strongest, which helps his performance in some light, but still, it’s the best of the movie and shows what can happen when Solondz is on, and darker than ever.
But like I said, there’s the other stories here and they’re not all that to hoot about. The first involving the upper-class family gets very weird, very quick and sort of feels as if it could have taken up the whole film (even if it is fun to watch Tracy Letts curse constantly and Julie Delpy act like a casual nut-job). The second involving the new and slightly improved Dawn Wiener may be interesting for Dollhouse fans, but can get so slow and meandering at times that it can kind of drag the movie to a halt. Then, there’s the last story with Ellen Burstyn’s granny character and it ends the movie on a solid note. While it’s definitely crazy, there’s some real truth to it and feels like Solondz is, once again, in his wheelhouse and enjoying it all.
If he was like that for every story, Wiener-Dog would be Solondz’s best since Happiness.
But, unfortunately, the wait goes on.
Consensus: As usual, Wiener-Dog highlights Solondz’s odd brand of surreal humor and characterization, even if he doesn’t always deliver at the end.
7 / 10
Photos Courtesy of: Citizen Charlie