Over time, we can acclimate ourselves to the strange inner lives of most artists, but the 56-year-old Todd Solondz’s vision is likely to be strange forever. His storytelling is brusque, and his ironies are brusquer. His cruelty is cold and contained, although that might be in the service of a larger compassion, meant to jolt his audience out of complacency. Is there a humanist alive deep inside him, trampled into something unrecognizable? My shrinky feelers tell me that at an early age, he suffered a primal injury that he has never gotten past, though that injury might simply have been life itself in the suburbs of New Jersey among upper-middle-class Jews bent on insulating themselves from the “real” world — i.e., the one defined by social injustice, which turns up in his films on TV screens. One way or another, violence creeps in.
Solondz’s Wiener-Dog consists of four short stories linked only by a small dog — a female dachshund — that goes along to get along, endearingly stoic in the face of death and despair. I loved it, but you might not. Despite its often prostrating bleakness and an ending likely to inspire howls of outrage (Solondz’s world is not kind to children or pets), it might be the closest he’ll ever come to making an inspirational work.
The dog’s owners appear in order of their age, from a trusting boy to a sensitive, high-strung young woman to a male screenwriting professor to an elderly woman whose mind has turned toward death. Between the second and third stories is an adorable “intermission” in which the dog trots along before a screen to a jaunty ballad by Marc Shaiman (Hairspray), passing pop-up national icons and illustrated scenes of mayhem. Although the song drips with irony, you want to believe that Wiener-Dog is a benevolent spirit, spreading hope wherever she goes.
Solondz’s first story, set in an affluent New Jersey home, is his most heavy-handed, but even the cheap shots at his characters cut deep. A boy named Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) greets his new pet, Wiener-Dog, with delight, but is quickly separated from the pooch by a father (Tracy Letts) who insists that an animal’s will must be broken — defining “will” under his son’s questioning as the assertion of personality. Solondz doesn’t underline the idea that the father’s view of pet-rearing coincides with his view of child-rearing. He doesn’t need to. Presented at last with an opportunity to romp with his pet beyond the reach of his parents, Remi lays waste to the living room and achieves a state of bliss. That he follows this up by giving the dog a treat that induces buckets of diarrhea and prompts the short-tempered father to whisk the beast away to be euthanized doesn’t dispel the good anarchic vibes. Especially since Wiener-Dog lives!
The dog is impulsively freed by veterinary aide Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), which is the name of the heroine of Solondz’s breakthrough film, Welcome to the Dollhouse, and perhaps his female alter ego. When she bumps into an old high-school crush, a manipulative druggie named Brandon played by Kieran Culkin, he calls her “Wiener-Dog” — which creates all kinds of mysterious layers. Here is Solondz’s idea of a hopeful resolution: Dawn and Brandon settle into intimacy after Brandon informs his poignantly vulnerable younger brother with Down syndrome that their alcoholic father has died and that they are alone in the world. Yes, it’s horrible, but maybe a small price to pay for connection.
Danny DeVito is Dave Schmerz, a has-been screenwriter-professor whose agents offer mechanically jolly assurances that his latest script will blow the studios away, who simmers before a cocky would-be film student who can’t name a single film that made an impression on him, and who writhes in humiliation when ridiculed by a successful visiting alumnus. We’d feel more sympathetic if Schmerz weren’t the kind of formula- and catchphrase-spouting screenwriting teacher whom Solondz has defined himself against. But in Wiener-Dog’s presence, he is driven to action — insane action, but rousing enough to end the sequence on a high.
Nothing can prepare us, though, for the final story, in which an old woman, Nana (Ellen Burstyn), is visited by a granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) who needs money to give to her feckless artist boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael James Shaw). Behind dark glasses, Burstyn’s Nana is at first so inexpressive that you might think she’s blind — she’s dying of morbid fatalism. But the story’s — and the movie’s — grisly finale seems to bring her back to life, if only to suffer more. I thought of Nietzsche’s “Dare to be tragic men for ye shall be redeemed!”
James Lavino and Nathan Larson’s richly melodic lounge music helps you groove on the perversity, while cinematographer Edward Lachman and production designer Akin McKenzie create settings from which nature and personality have been purged — settings that could inspire you to arson. But hey, that’s a kind of inspiration! Solondz doesn’t show the same arch contempt for materialism that he did in his early films. More than ever, he evokes the pain of people for whom there is no possibility of transcendence — unless, of course, they get a dog. The movie could be called Welcome to the Doghouse.
*This article appears in the June 27, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.