Written and directed by: Todd Solondz
If you’re curious, go on Youtube and look up a trailer for Todd Solondz’s Wiener Dog. You’ll notice a lot of angry commenters lambasting it for being a terrible movie. I’m not sure whether to be frustrated or amused by such comments. Much like those who ensured Darren Aronofsky’s mother! got a series of Razzie nominations, it seems like a lot of youtube commenters don’t know how to distinguish their not enjoying a style of filmmaking from a film actually being bad.
Now don’t get me wrong. I won’t turn on Wiener-Dog and fondly rewatch it when I’m in need of cheering up, but that’s the point of Solondz’s cinema. He explores the uglier sides of human existence by having his characters speak and sometimes act in appalling ways. This dynamic is perhaps best expressed in the film’s first story (the film has four parts each of which cover the relationship between different people and a dachshund). This vignette centres around Remi, a 7-year old cancer survivor, who’s given a pet dachshund, which he plainly names “Wiener-Dog.” This name shows a great deal of love: he doesn’t need to give her a special name for her to matter to him: she’s the only wiener-dog in the world as far as he’s concerned. Unfortunately for Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke ) , his mother Dina (Julie Delpy, in a role loosely connected to a few of her lines in Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy) is not a fan of his having a dog, and his father (Tracy Letts ) is fickle on the matter as well. It seems every conversation Remi and his mother have is a serious one, and at times she can be quite blunt. In some conversations she comes across horribly. In others, she comes across as more normal, yet nonetheless her contrast with Remi allows his “naïve” higher sense of moral urgency to shine through.
Wiener-Dog charms through its use of different aesthetics (the intermission is no doubt one of the film’s highlights) and personas. Greta Gerwig plays a classic indie protagonist (Dawn Wiener of Solondz’s Take Me to the Doll House), Danny Devito plays a curmudgeony film school professor, Zosia Mamet plays a Girls-like (though not necessarily her Girls character) figure, and Ellen Burstyn plays a misanthropic grandmother. Therefore, even while Wiener Dog peaks early, its continued innovations make it a solid film from start to finish.
While I bemoan those who lack the nuance to understand Solondz’ shock based approach, I can’t help but have questions myself about exactly how it should have been applied. In one of her conversations with Remi, Dina makes an implicitly racist remark about a dog named Mohamed, and because this interaction is with her 7-year old son there’s no one present to call out this dog-whistle remark. Given the film’s overall presentation one can only assume that Solondz trusts his audience to be critical of the character’s comment. Nonetheless, the scene does raise some moral questions of what directors need to do to distance themselves from the views of their charters (I’m not saying I have the answer).
Similarly, there’s another scene in which Dawn and her travel companion Brandon (Kieran Culkin) make comments implying Brandon’s brother Tommy (Connor Long) and his wife April (Bridget Brown) shouldn’t have kids because they have down syndrome. While the very fact that Solondz included three-dimensional portrayals of people with down syndrome in his screenplay is a good sign that he does not share in his characters bigoted views, he does nothing in the script to particularly challenge them. This is perhaps more problematic than the “Mohamed scene” since this form of ableism is not an every-day cable issue, and as such may not seem as shocking to viewers (it doesn’t help that Dawn is a more likeable character than Dina).
For all its strengths and potential weaknesses, Wiener-Dog is a film that should be watched with careful inquisitiveness. Perhaps, as the Youtube comments suggest, the way it’s made already filters out many of those who aren’t prepared to watch it as such. In all, Wiener-Dog is one of the most intriguing films I’ve seen in a while. You just have to accept that it’s the kind of thing that will impress you and make you uncomfortable in equal proportions.