Wiener-Dog (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): Four short stories around a dog

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I cringed and winced from time to time as watching “Wiener-Dog”, the latest work of Todd Solondz. While it is relatively less edgy and uncomfortable compared to his previous works such as “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995) and “Happiness” (1998), the movie often strikes us hard with its mean, vicious sense of humor, and I must warn you in advance that there are several moments which may repulse you for good reasons, but you may also admire its dry but empathetic presentation of human misery and unhappiness via four different short stories revolving around one little dachshund dog.

At the beginning of the first story, we see that dog in question taken to a suburban family. Danny (Tracy Letts) thinks that it will bring some support and comfort to his young cancer-surviving son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), and Remi is certainly is excited to have a pet dog to play with, but Danny’s French wife Dina (Julie Delpy) does not like welcome the dog much from the beginning. Some time later, she takes the dog to a local veterinarian for getting it spayed, and there is a darkly amusing scene where she tells a rather morbid tale for emphasizing to her son the necessity of getting his dog sterilized.

Things look fine for a while after that, but, of course, a big trouble eventually occurs thanks to a small act of misjudgment by Remi, and its consequence is not so pretty to say the least. In the end, his father decides that the dog must be removed from the house, and Remi is saddened and devastated by this loss of his, while coming to learn a bit about life and death from his mother.

After being taken to the local veterinarian, the dog is soon going to be euthanized, but Dawn (Greta Gerwig), who was the miserable young heroine of “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and currently works as a nurse for that veterinarian, feels pity toward to the dog, and she eventually takes him to her residence. Thanks to her generous care, the dog gets better than before, and it soon becomes a good companion in Dawn’s drab daily life.

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On one day, Dawn comes across Brandon (Kieran Culkin), her former schoolmate who used to bully her during their school years but actually liked her more than he admitted. Although their awkward reunion seems momentary at first, Brandon subsequently suggests that she should go to somewhere in Ohio along with him, and Dawn does not reject his suggestion at all because, well, she still has some feeling toward him.

As spending more time with Brandon and the dog on the road, Dawn comes to like him more, and he also seems to be willing to get closer to her, but we soon sense how problematic his life is. For some purpose, he drops by several places, and there is a brief but crucial shot showing what he is hiding from Dawn. When he and Dawn eventually arrive at their destination, Brandon shows his better side, and Dawn becomes optimistic about their growing relationship, but we cannot help but worry about what may happen next due to his personal demons.

At the end of the second story, the dog is handed over to a certain young couple close to Brandon, but then the third story shows the dog belonging now to Dave (Danny DeVito), a scruffy middle-aged film school teacher whose daily life in New York City has been going nowhere for years. While he has hoped that a screenplay written by him will be sold in Hollywood someday, he only receives empty promises from his former agent and his successor, and this increasingly hopeless status certainly affects him a lot. At one point, he is told that he is not particularly regarded well by his peers and students due to his negative attitude, and that makes him feel all the more miserable.

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After a cringe-inducing scene where he finds himself mocked and humiliated by some hot-shot filmmaker who once studied under him, Dave becomes far more frustrated and exasperated than before, and that eventually leads to a funny but disturbing moment, which is followed by the melancholic ending with some ambiguity. Although he has been less prominent than before during recent years, Danny DeVito did a good job of balancing his character well between pathos and humor, and he surely gives the best performance in the film.

In the last story, which is the weakest part of the film in my inconsequential opinion, the dog now belongs to a blind old lady called Nana (Ellen Burstyn). When she is being taken care of by her caregiver as usual, her granddaughter visits along with her artist boyfriend, and it soon becomes clear to us that she comes to Nana for getting some money for her artistic boyfriend. While she eventually hands a check to her granddaughter, Nana does not hide her acerbic sides at all, and that certainly makes her granddaughter a bit uncomfortable.

The following scene showing Nana going through a dreamy introspective moment is rather sappy on the surface, but then the movie slaps us hard during its last several minutes. According to the IMDB trivia, many audiences actively showed their negative reactions to this moment when the movie was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in early 2016, and I think you will likely be quite horrified if you are an animal lover.

Although it is not wholly successful, “Wiener-Dog” is still an interesting piece of work supported well by its various main cast members, and it surely shows us that Solondz has not lost any of his edgy artistic touch. Like “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness”, the movie is not something I am willing to revisit again, but, considering its more effective moments which will linger on your mind for a while, it deserves more attention and appreciation at least.

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