I used to adore Todd Solondz. He came along when independent movies were drowning in a quagmire of quirkiness – there was only so much Parker Posey I could take, only so many episodes of Friends filmed in black and white and passed off as movies, as well as monthly knockoffs of Reservoir Dogs or The Big Lebowski - and with his two masterpieces, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, which I’ll rate up there with any other movies you can name from the 1990s, he shattered the prevailing tone. His work felt brutal, as threatening and challenging as a new language. Solondz was a like a little prizefighter, wading into bigger opponents and keeping them off balance with haymakers of weirdness. Yet, no matter how disturbing his movies were, his characters were recognizably human. Then Solondz fell in love with weirdness, until it became shtick; the rest of his movies since then have felt like random ideas picked from a hat and hitched together. There was always hope, though, even if he appeared to be scrambling and lost. At least he wasn’t hurting anybody, and I was happy in the knowledge that he’d never make something like Ant-man.
Now, Wiener-Dog is the equivalent of standing in line at the DMV surrounded by meth heads. Sure, there may be something amusing going on, but on the whole you’d be better off outdoors. The movie is made up of four short segments – fragments, really – held together by a fat little dachshund who waddles into each setting like the donkey from Au Hasard Balthazar. The second of the four scenes resurrects two characters from Dollhouse, Dawn and Brandon (played reasonably well by Greta Gerwig and Kieran Culkin), but even if Solondz’ cult of fans get a brief charge out of seeing Dawn and Brandon again, the scene isn’t particularly memorable. The other bits include Danny DeVito as a film school professor disrespected by staff and students alike, and Ellen Burstyn as an elderly woman enduring a visit from her ditzy granddaughter (Zosia Mamet). The dachshund comes into the lives of these characters, but doesn’t have any particular effect. The poor thing may as well have been a handbag. At one point she’s given to a sickly young boy (Keaton Nigel Cooke) and the two have a good time messing up some furniture. The boy is a stock Solondz character, the innocent gradually learning the world is a disgusting, heartless place, but Solondz ducks and runs without going too deep. He has the gimmick of the dachshund, and is happy to skirt the surface of scenes. Now and then someone ponders death or aging, or the vapidity of film school students, but it’s trite stuff.
Perhaps Solondz should’ve taken one of the bits and ballooned it out to 90 minutes. Instead, we get snippets, vague reveries about America being a lonely place, and bland musings on the futility of life. These are the themes of a precocious kid, not a seasoned moviemaker who once dared us to sympathize with perverts and murderers.
Wiener-Dog is lifeless. Instead of tension and climaxes, we get tableaus of hopelessness. It doesn’t even make good existentialism, because existentialism usually has some kind of unseen horror behind it. Here, characters stare vacantly, and don’t speak their lines so much as drool them. It could only be entertaining or moving to people who are so bored with Hollywood’s current fare that they’ll mistake this for being deep and darkly comic. Sure, the performers all have their moments, and the pooch has charisma, and there were a few mildly funny parts, but I can’t get excited about a movie where the camera pans over massive piles of dog diarrhea, and then ends on a very cheap joke. Solondz may find his way out of the wilderness someday, but he’s still working over a patch of terrain he wore out years ago.