Imagine Danny DeVito walking down the street with a dachshund bedecked in a yellow polka-dot dress. To be clear, the dachshund is wearing the dress, not DeVito.
In any other film, it would be an obvious joke. But this is a Todd Solondz movie, and, thus nothing plays out as you might expect. Everything in Wiener-Dog is both funny and tragic, heartbreakingly sincere and laced with stomach-knotting cynicism, and it’s perfect.
The film, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, was said to be a sort of spiritual sequel to Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, but Solondz warned before the festival that those looking for a sequel might be “a little disappointed”.
Indeed, though Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Dawn Wiener does reappear for a segment (played this time by Greta Gerwig, not Heather Matarazzo), Weiner-Dog is not a sequel by any means. It’s a series of loosely connected vignettes following a toffee-coloured dachshund around from owner to owner.
There’s the young only child of a wealthy, unhappy family (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy), there’s a grown Dawn Wiener who goes on a road trip with an old classmate (Kieran Culkin), there’s a depressive screenwriter/professor (DeVito), and there’s an elderly grump (Ellen Burstyn) and her troubled granddaughter (Zosia Mamet).
The stories are each distinct, hilarious and distressing in their own ways, and they get progressively experimental.
All are wonderful, but it’s the DeVito one that really stands out from the pack in its excellence. DeVito plays Dave Schmerz, a film school professor and failing screenwriter (he had one big-ish movie made, Apricots! but has been struggling for decades to sell another). DeVito’s deep, existential distress is deeply felt and expertly conveyed. It’s a riveting performance and a terribly smart little story that feels like a full feature in and of itself.
Wiener-Dog looks incredibly beautiful, too, thanks in part to the cinematography stylings of the great Ed Lachman (Oscar-nominated this year for Carol).
Solondz continues to be one of the most distinctive, original filmmakers of his generation, and Wiener-Dog will make you laugh, cry, and seriously wonder about the point of it all.
What other filmmaker could get away with a long, slow beautiful tracking shot of doggie doo set to Clair de Lune? I wouldn’t even want anyone else to try.