(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+