Directed by Todd Solondz
I went to a screening of a movie called “Wiener-Dog”. Imagine my surprise to find it wasn’t animated. Apparently, that’s a different pet movie.
But seriously, the packed crowd for the pre-release screening of Todd Solondz’ newest film was palpably nervous in anticipation. After all, this is only his third feature in the last decade. And, as you might guess, upon its completion, there was a polarized response. With a twist. Half the audience cheered, but the other, rather than being outraged, merely shrugged with a tepid “meh”.
Put me firmly in the latter camp.
“You obviously don’t understand Solondz,” you might cry. Well, just you back off there, Sparky. I’m a bonafide Solondz fan, if not fanatic. His form of anti-melodrama, or dark-web comedy, or…uh…Solondz-ism, has always appealed to me. I’ve considered him to be the lone cinematic voice in successfully portraying and uncovering the darkest (and most secret) parts of the individual psyche of Americans…whether it be fear, desire, isolation, or joy.
Alas, “Wiener-Dog” just doesn’t really accomplish any of that. Rather, made up of four vignettes tied together by the life and travails of an amazing dachshund, it feels more like an episode of “Love American Style”. And, further, since these vignettes are BARELY connected (and, oh, so loosely) by his ongoing themes of loneliness and finding connection at all costs, they live or die on their own, and, mostly they die. The second half of the film fares far better than the first…and had they been released as shorts, they would be much more enjoyable.
The performances are, alas, all over the map. Solondz is not easy to perform. His dialogue IS melodramatic, but if done with no fear, can be hyper-realistic and incredibly affecting. No better example of this exists than in “Happiness” when Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lenny meets Lara Flynn Boyle’s Helen. Pure soap in the wrong hands, they turn it in to one of the most heartbreaking moments in cinema history. Alas, there is no Hoffman in this. DeVito comes closest to revealing the true humanity of these words and these situations. And Ellen Burstyn has a few moments of clarity. But the biggest issue seems to be that Solondz lets his actors do their thing with minimal direction. At least that’s how it comes across. How else to explain Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy playing type instead of substance. The words of these parents to a young child are very funny, if horrifyingly so, but they end up commenting on themselves instead of letting the audience. And the less said about the performances in the second vignette the better.
All that said, and while there are precious few moments of cringe-worthy discomfort, and even one or two moments of abject shock (if you are averse to any form of cruelty to animals STAY AWAY), it does have moments of hilarity. But, overall, it feels like Solondz had a great idea on paper, but was unable to execute it with any of the authority, reality, and intra-psychic substance we’ve come to expect from him.
Wish I had better news.
Written on July 8, 2016