Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Director Report Card: Todd Solondz (2016)

8. Wiener-Dog

When the new film from Todd Solondz, the master of suburban miserablist comedy, was announced a few years back, it was presented as a story about an adorable dachshund bringing happiness into the lives of several different people. I, at the time, suspected this synopsis was misleading. I immediately began to worry about the horrible things Solondz would do to a cute, innocent little animal. Both of these concerns, it turns out, were well founded! “Wiener-Dog” is another pitch black comedy from the director, a rumination on life’s biggest disappointments occasionally shown through a darkly humorous lens. Somehow, the filmmaker has still found new things to say about these topics. “Wiener-Dog” is another emotionally affecting and deeply melancholic but beautifully orchestrated film.

“Wiener-Dog’s” titular character, a female dachshund, is introduced inside a pet store cage. She’s alone, surrounded by barking dogs, and under sickly green lights. Thus, the director’s view point – which is either deeply misanthropic or bracingly humanistic, depending on your opinion – is turned on an innocent dog. The film often shoots from a canine’s eye view, looking up at the sky, people, or tables. Through the small dog, Solondz presents four stories about different stages of life: Childhood, young adulthood, maturity, and the infirmity of old age. Themes about death, choice, and belonging wind through all four segments. Solondz’ script is alternately cruel and sarcastic. Poor little Wiener-Dog endures a number of indignities, suffering at fate’s pitiless hands. Yet the film also displays Solondz’ impish sense of humor. Such as a lengthy and hilarious intermission, devoted to a green screen-aided Wiener-Dog traveling the country, backed up by a western style theme song.

Wiener-Dog’s first adventure has her being adopted by Danny and Dina, as a gift for their son Remi. Remi has survived some sort of childhood cancer, which has recently gone into remission. Danny hopes the dog will teach Remi responsibility. Remi immediately bonds with Wiener-Dog. His parents, however, struggle with the critter. Danny has trouble house-training the animal. Dina teaches her son about pregnancy and responsibility in the worst way possible. Ultimately, what the boy wants comes into conflict with his parent’s ideas for poor little Wiener-Dog.

Solondz immediately draws a parallel between the sickly boy and the sausage-shaped dog. Remi is introduced laying on the grass, looking skyward. Later, Wiener-Dog joins him in the exact same activity. Remi’s parents keep him inside, for fear that his fragile health will be threatened. Danny, meanwhile, insists on keeping the dog inside a small crate all day. The film’s flat direction purposely points out the similarities between the dog’s cage and the box-like, impersonal rooms of the home. One of “Wiener-Dog’s” few moments of effervescent joy occurs when Remi takes his pet out of the crate. The two frolic around the house, jumping on the couch, tearing up a pillow, and having a great time. This being a Solondz’ film, this sequence is immediately followed up by a downbeat one, where Remi learns the messy realities of canine dietary needs.

This first sequence also has Solondz returning to themes he has addressed in previous films. When taking Wiener-Dog to be spaded, Remi asks questions about parenthood and pregnancy. As in “Palindromes,” the mother explains parental responsibilities to the boy in a terrible manner. Later, she tells a horrifying story about her childhood poodle being “raped” by a stray. (She also pointedly gives the mutt the Islamophobic name of Muhammad.) Julie Delpy keeps an entirely straight face while delivering some of Solondz’ typically acidic dialogue. Soon, Wiener-Dog’s predicament becomes an issue of free will and choice. Danny, played fiercely by playwright Tracy Letts, demands to house train the animal, which he refers to as “breaking its will.” Once again, Solondz presents social conformity as a way to imprison people, to sacrifice free will.

The first segments ends with Solondz sparing Wiener-Dog’s life, at the last minute. She is, instead, adopted by Dawn Wiener, the formerly teenage protagonist from “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Despite committing suicide in “Palindromes,” Dawn has returned, this time played by Greta Gerwig. While out buying dog food for her new pet, Dawn runs into Brandon, her bully/boyfriend from back in the seventh grade. After an awkward reintroduction, Brandon invites Dawn to join him on a road trip. The dachshund, which Dawn has renamed Howdy Doody, also tags along on this journey.

In its second segment, “Wiener-Dog” focuses on one of Solondz’ favorite topics: Socially awkward misfits who have trouble making meaningful connections. Brandon is now a drug addict, struggling to kick a meth habit. The people he attempts to talk to during the journey all reject him flat-out. During their road trip, the two pick up a mariachi band who have found it difficult to integrate into American society. While attempting to have a serious discussion with Brandon’s sister-in-law – who has Downs Syndrome, just like his brother – Dawn alienates the young woman. Despite being older and presumably wiser, Dawn is no less socially awkward. Her name for her pet, shortened to Doody, is often misunderstood to be a reference to feces. She freezes up during conversation. She allows other people to push her around. Gerwig perfectly recaptures the twitchy nerdiness Heather Matarazzo brought to the part.

Yet the second story is also “Wiener-Dog’s” most hopeful. Dawn, Brandon, and Doody are all searching for the same thing. They want to belong, to be accepted. The objective of Brandon’s road trip is to inform his family about his alcoholic father’s recent death. Only his younger, disabled brother is even willing to talk to him. Despite his troubled history, Brandon’s brother forgives him for his flaws. Dawn can also see Brandon’s kinder side. By the end, the two have bonded, their romance reforming under more agreeable circumstances. Wiener-Dog has found a new family too, one seemingly less concerned about breaking her will. It’s the film at its most touching, providing a rare happy ending to Solondz’ most famous character without sacrificing any of his trademark neuroses.

Despite seemingly finding a forever home at the end of the second story, Wiener-Dog/Doody has a new owner following the intermission. She’s now the pet of Dave Schmerz, a professor at a New York film school. Once a successful filmmaker, Schmerz is currently having trouble selling his latest screenplay. A script, he notes, that has already been compromised by the insertion of a crowd-pleasing last act. He’s misunderstood by his co-workers and outright disliked by his students. His grouchy exterior eventually threatens his job. With few other options, Schmerz takes some drastic measures.

As with “Storytelling’s” Toby Oxman, Todd Solondz has inserted himself into his own movie. Dave Schmerz is a balding, Jewish, nasally voiced little man with an off-putting personality. He struggles to get his movies made, described as sub-Woody Allen dramedies. (Like Solondz, he also teaches at a film school.) He’s constantly and literally put on hold by agents and studio executives, always waiting for a call back. He’s creatively beaten down, desperate to make something personal but commercial. When one of his students pitches him a script about gender fluidity and epistemological concepts, Schmerz is more concerned with basic story construction. This gets him laughed at as out of touch. He’s frustrated and antisocial but the film doesn’t dismiss his own serious flaws. In other words, Schmerz is a classical Solondz-ian anti-hero. Danny DeVito plays Schmerz, bringing a quiet discomfort to every scene, fully embodying the character’s pathetic qualities.

Despite containing as much soul-crushing depression as every other segment of “Wiener-Dog,” Schmerz’ story is also the film’s funniest sequence. The story opens with Schmerz staring in disbelief while a student details his superhero fan fiction project. Later, a potential film student displays a complete disinterest and lack of knowledge about film. There’s even some funny background gags, such as a poster for Schmerz’ prior film. Entitled “Apricots!,” it’s clearly a parody of Woody Allen’s “Bananas.” Schmerz’ eventual severe actions recalls his earlier, awkward attempts to insert dramatic events into his screenplay. How this plays out is darkly hilarious, little Wiener-Dog re-entering the story in a surprising fashion. Though quite sad, Schmerz’ sequence contains quite a few big belly laughs.

By the final segment, Wiener-Dog has traded hands once again. Now the dachshund is the property of an elderly woman, who has bitterly, ironically re-named the dog Cancer. The woman, known only as Nana, lives a quiet existence with her live-in nurse, never removing her black sunglasses. This quiet life is interrupted when her granddaughter, Zoe, comes to visit. Zoe brings along her boyfriend, a pretentious artist type improbably named Fantasy. Soon, Zoe’s motivations become clear. Fantasy needs 10,000 dollars for his latest art installation. Nana’s decision to hand over the money soon has her wondering about the choices she has made in life.

If Danny DeVito as Dave Schmerz is “Wiener-Dog’s” stand-out leading man, Ellen Burstyn as Nana is its stand-out leading lady. An sickly old woman who has made far too many compromises, Burstyn bites into Solondz’ bitter dialogue with aplomb. The character’s lines are curt, to the point, and uncompromising. Nana is clearly pass the point of giving a shit. Yet Burnstyn finds a meloncholey under her actions. She’s a woman near death and is all too willing to remind others of their impending mortality. She sees the sadness in those around her, even if she rarely shows how it effects her.

In its final minutes, “Wiener-Dog” takes one of Solondz’ surreal turns. A dream, equally depressing and funny, has Nana’s regrets taking physical form. The inevitable then happens, the film’s themes of mortality being visited upon its unknowing titular character. It’s an incredibly upsetting moment, which has been poorly received by many people on the internet, that the audience has been dreading throughout the whole film. “Wiener-Dog” then stretches the moment out into a genuinely funny sick joke, doubling down on its own gruesomeness. The concluding image is potentially baffling, taking aim at modern art and the ghoulishness of funeral rites. Thus, “Wiener-Dog” comes full circle, exploring life and its inevitable end through a sweet little creature that never hurt any one.

Like all of Solondz’ films, “Wiener-Dog” will haunt me in the days to come. The deeply ironic humor, which can generate big laughs, stands side-by-side with deep probing questions about the futility of existence. Several times, Solondz threatens to cross over into full-on grotesqueness, with lingering close-ups on dog shit or the sudden appearance of a smart car. Yet his empathy for the suffering of damaged human beings – and innocent puppy dogs – grounds the stories. Edward Lachman’s gorgeous cinematography finds the beauty in the painfully mundane. The lead performances from Gerwig, DeVito, Burstyn, and Kieran Culkin are excellent. Though typically challenging, and likely to piss off animal lovers, “Wiener-Dog” is another fine film from America’s most neurotic story teller. [Grade: B+]

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