(USA 2016)

For someone whose best-known films have words like “welcome” and “happiness” in their titles, Todd Solondz doesn’t come across as a particularly cheery guy. His stories are never sentimental or uplifting. His characters are a motley crew of hopeless geeks, unattractive lurps, and outright assholes. He exposes the worst of humanity—pettiness, cruelty, disappointment, indifference—and makes a deranged joke out of it. To some (like me), his bleak, misanthropic perspective is wildly amusing, refreshing, and compelling. Those who dig his twisted brand of cynicism should relish Wiener-Dog, his first film in five years.

Wiener-Dog follows the life of a dachshund as she passes through a succession of masters in four vignettes: Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a child cancer survivor; Dawn (Greta Gerwig), a flummoxed vet assistant who runs into a former classmate, Brandon (Kieran Culkin), at a convenience store; Schmertz (Danny DeVito), a film writing professor on the verge of a meltdown over a screenplay he can’t get his agent to read; and a dying old sourpuss (Ellen Burstyn) whose cracky granddaughter, Zoe (Zosia Mamet), pays her an unexpected visit.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

Side note: the aforementioned Dawn is Dawn Wiener—whose classmates’ mean nickname for her provides the title here—from Welcome to the Dollhouse. I was apprehensive about the idea of resurrecting her and Brandon, but it works on its own without coming off as a desperate attempt at piggybacking a successful past project or playing on nostalgia.

Wiener-Dog is all Solondz, and he’s focused on mortality: sickness and death color each sketch. He starts at childhood and moves through adulthood, getting progressively glum as he leads us to a grave of sorts. Even Weiner-Dog’s name, which changes with each master, hints at where this is all going: Wiener-Dog, Doodie (as in poop), and Cancer—if DeVito’s character named her, I missed it. With just a few exceptions, everyone is terrible. This film is loaded with wonderfully sad, absurd dialogue. Remi’s father (Tracy Lett) explains the importance of breaking a dog’s will, ending the discussion on a bizarre contradictory note. In a hilarious philosophical colloquy, Remi’s mother (Julia Delphy) explains why Wiener-Dog needs to be spayed, inadvertently bringing him to the conclusion that “death is a good thing.” Brandon tells his brother (Connor Long), who has Down’s Syndrome, that their father just died from drinking, even though he said he quit a long time ago. An admissions committee interviews an applicant (Devin Druid) about why he wants to go to film school, and he can’t answer a single question. A school administrator (Sharon Washington) confronts DeVito about his negativity. Zoe explains how rare the ostrich egg she just gave her grandmother is while her grandmother’s unimpressed nurse, Yvette (Marcella Lowery), takes it away to dispose of it. In a dream sequence, Ellen Burstyn’s character has a weird conversation with multiple alternate versions of herself (Melo Ludwig) that chose to be nicer during life.

And then there’s the ending—abrupt and jarring, I literally jumped in my seat and sat there frozen for a few moments. True to form, Solondz makes it clear that no one is important in life’s grand scheme.

Solondz called Wiener-Dog one of his “sunnier” films, and it actually is. To expect a schlocky tale highlighting the joy a pet brings is stupid considering the man behind it. Nonetheless, Solondz gets as sweet as I’ve ever seen him, especially with Dawn and Brandon. The scene where Zoe confides to her grandmother that she suspects her boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael Shaw), is running around behind her back is also touching. The “intermission” is dumb but cute, and the songs are fun. Wiener-Dog has a good life unlike those around her—she isn’t mistreated, and she achieves something none of the other characters do: immortality.

Screening followed by a live Q and A with Todd Solondz.

93 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B+


Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore

(USA 1974)

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore defies classification: it’s a road movie, a coming-of-age film, a romance, and arguably a feminist statement.

On one hand, it’s a dark study of Alice Hyatt (Ellen Burstyn), a neglected Soccoro housewife thrust into an awful situation: her husband, Donald (Billy Green Bush), is killed in a truck accident, leaving her with nothing. Forced to fend for herself and her 12-year-old son, Tommy (Alfred Lutter), she turns to the only thing she knows: singing. In dark piano bars. Um, in New Mexico and Arizona. It doesn’t pan out, so she takes a job as a waitress in Tuscon, which, we are informed, is the “weird capitol of the world.” Fucking dismal. On the other hand, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a marvelously sublime but uncomfortable comedy that exploits for all it’s worth Alice’s cluelessness in her search for the American Dream. Director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Robert Getchell throw out so much to laugh at, and I do—it’s just not clear that I’m supposed to. Hence the genius of this film, one my absolute favorites.

Like most films you watch over and over, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is loaded with great lines—far too many to even begin repeating here; this is what keeps me coming back. Early career performances by the likes of Harvey Keitel, Kris Kristofferson, Valerie Curtin, Diane Ladd, and yes, Jodie Foster are a treat! The acting is superb; in fact, Burstyn won an Oscar and Ladd was nominated for one (as was Getchell). Audrey (Foster), clearly a precursor to Taxi Driver‘s Doris, is the smartass trouble girl I always wanted to hang out with: she drinks Ripple, steals guitar cords, and refers to her mother as “Ramada Rose.” Fuck yeah! And how cool to witness the birth of Alice, the TV series? Mel (Vic Tayback) is the exact same character, and Ladd, the original Flo—she doesn’t say “Kiss my grits” but she does say “Mel, you can kiss me where the sun don’t shine!”—was reanimated as Belle after Polly Holliday left.

Alice and Tommy might be pitiful, but they’re not pitiable. For all its tragedy, the film’s ending is a positive if not happy one: Alice and Tommy make peace with where they end up. Who knows whether it ultimately works out? They’re good for now. They can always start over—in Monterey or anywhere else. If there were such a thing as American neorealism, this film qualifies (except maybe for the fact that these are professional actors).

I’ve seen Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore hundreds of times, usually edited for late night TV. I can see it a hundred times more. It never gets old. I recommend the unedited original version.

112 minutes
Rated PG

(Home via iTunes) A