Sundance 2016 Review: “Wiener-Dog” – Where is the ASPCA when you need them?
Wiener-Dog Review: Where is the ASPCA when you need them?
I want to start this review off by saying that I am no stranger to the dark and disturbing world of Todd Solondz. Like many Independent film fans, Welcome to the Dollhouse was my first introduction to his bizarre yet relevant take on things. I was so intrigued by that film that I went out and blindly purchased Happiness on DVD and remember driving over an hour to see Storytelling when I was in college in New Jersey and all the way up to Pasadena when I was at Chapman University to see Palindromes. These four films were arguably brilliant, strange, and great independent filmmaking that dared to go places that most other filmmakers would never go.
With that being said, Wiener-Dog was my most anticipated film of Sundance 2016 and I was beyond thrilled when I received a ticket to the World Premiere screening. Just like a lot of Solondz previous outings, Wiener-Dog is broken up into 4 little stories all tied together by one single plot device and this time around its a little Dachshund. There is a huge difference between telling a dark comedic tale versus telling a mean spirited one. Sadly, the vast majority of Wiener-Dog is the latter. I guess I should make mention right now that I am going to dive in pretty deep into detail with this review so there will be spoilers throughout which I will try to make mention of before hand. The absolute best way for me to review Wiener-Dog is take the overall film and break it down into the 4 short stories.
The film opens with Wiener Dog being adopted from a shelter by Danny (Tracy Letts) and brings the dog home for his 9-year old son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) who is battling cancer. Remi is excited about the dog but his mother Dina (Julie Delpy) is beyond upset about having an untrained dog in the house. As expected the dog and Remi instantly bond while Danny and Dina continue to get more and more frustrated with one another due to having a dog in the house. There are spots during this story where I see the glimpses of dark humor but in reality its just a bit too much for any viewer to handle, let alone appreciate.
*Spoilers* I don’t quite understand why a mother telling her 9 year old about her dog being raped by another dog should be funny. I also didn’t understand why we needed to see a long tracking shot of a dog diarrhea on the street to prove that the dog is really sick especially when it was already showed all over the floor in the house just seconds before. *End Spoilers*
I just couldn’t connect with or find the humor in this first story at all. I didn’t get how Danny brings this dog home and seems so supportive of Remi having the dog but almost instantly becomes upset with the decision. In my eyes, it just felt as though Solondz was trying to convey every type of inappropriate question or conversation that a parent could have with a little kid and them answering in the most inappropriate way ever. It didn’t feel genuine at all but just mean for the sake of being mean.
The second story features a grown-up Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig) who *spoiler* rescues Wiener dog from a hospital after Danny brings him to the vet to be put down after the diarrhea incident. *End Spoilers* Dawn instantly grows to love the dog and one day while at the store looking for dog food, she run into an old classmate named Brandon McCarthy (Kieran Culkin). The two embark on a small road trip together to Ohio to visit Brandon’s brother Tommy. This story out of all the stories was the most poignant and relevant. It dives into the world of substance abuse such as drugs and alcohol while being emotionally touching as well.
Coming off the unfunny first story, I was much happier with this one plus I liked seeing an older Dawn Wiener on-screen. I thought this entire story serves as the films highlight and was probably what everyone hoped for when they heard that this film was the sort of sequel to Welcome to the Dollhouse. Gerwig’s awkwardness really embraces the character of Dawn and Culkin is always a class act. I must also commend Solondz here for using two actors here who are really mentally disabled. I think it added a lot of authenticity to the story.
Before we get to the third story, Solondz adds an intermission that serves as one of the film’s finest and funniest moments. It is short and sweet segue that explains how the dog gets from the second to third story.
The third story follows Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a once successful but now struggling screenwriter teaching at a film school in NYC. *Spoiler* Somehow the dog finds its way to Dave which is hinted in the intermission joke. The last thing we know about the dog’s whereabouts is that Dawn left the dog at Tommy’s house in Ohio after Tommy and his wife April bond and fall in love with the dog. *End Spoiler* This storyline was a pretty honest look at how Solondz viewed film school and screen-writers. It shows elements of professional failure while also taking a jab at the educational system and how kids today have no real foundation or understanding for how the real world works. The problem, however, is that the subject matter here has been tackled before and isn’t really all that new or fresh. It feel like something that would have felt relevant maybe 10 years ago. This story almost felt like an old man complaining about kids today and their lack of direction. It was just really bland even though I will say DeVito was great in this role.
The fourth and final story involves Nana (Ellen Burstyn), a cranky grandmother who feels abandoned by her family. *Spoiler* Nana gets the dog because Dave ties a bomb to the dog when he attempts to blown up the university after he finds out that several students and staff members don’t like him. Again, why this is funny, I honestly don’t know. *End Spoilers* Because she feels alone, Nana decides to adopt a dog so that she can sit around with her loyal companion. One day out of the blue, Nana gets a visit from her granddaughter Zoe (Zoysia Mamet) and her boyfriend Fantasy (Michael Shaw). Zoe isn’t there to visit but rather to ask for money to help her boyfriend start a new art project. It is in this moment where Nana begins to feel concerned for how her granddaughter has chosen to live life while she also begins questioning her own.
While transitioning into a “what if” state, Nana gets visited by several little girls who are all alternative versions of herself that make her truly question her life and the decisions that she made. The situations range from very silly and irrelevant to very big decisions that could have really changed how her life played out. It is at this point while Nana is dreaming that the dog ventures off on its own. What happens next is beyond disgusting and just Solondz being a masochist for the simple fact that he can. *Spoiler* The dog ultimately runs into the middle of the road and gets run over by a truck. The entire thing is shown as it happens and because Solondz can’t help but continue to be a masochist, he shows yet another truck running the dog remains over followed by two additional cars. *End Spoilers*
I will say that the final scene in this film will enrage a lot of people. I think the way that Solondz handled the final scene was beyond disgusting and was just done to upset viewers that love animals. I seriously cannot remember being this bothered by an ending to a film in a long time. Some may argue that it is a great ending because it sparks anger but I don’t agree at all. Great endings leave you with a specific type of feeling about how the film was or the message that it was trying to convey to its audience. This film didn’t leave that type of impression at all. Instead it just made me question whether or not Solondz hurts animals when he lays in bed at night. I think the extreme measures that Solondz went to with the final scene was more or less for shock value than anything else.
Overall, despite the film coming off as anti-dog, I was beyond disappointed with it as a whole. There are a few moments here and there where we see glimpses of classic Solondz but most of the film is rather mean-spirited and unfunny. It also doesn’t have that emotional punch to it that his earlier films had. The only really jarring thing about the film was done for shock value rather than to convey a deep message. I will say that that the second story was rather brilliant and just wish that the other 3 stories were that good rather than what they were. I didn’t get the majority of humor in this film even though I saw the point of the joke. I almost feel that Solondz has lost his edge and can’t help but make films now that come off as him being mad at the world rather than telling a good story with interesting characters. I felt no investment with anyone or anything in this film. I am beyond disappointed and truth be told, if it weren’t for the second story and the intermission, this would easily be one of the worst films of 2016.
MovieManMenzel’s final rating for Wiener-Dog is a 4 out of 10.