In Todd Solondz’ filmography, ridicule functions as the optimal mode of social intercourse. Solondz’ hip sardonic tone, absence of conventional plotting, and dependence on vignettes as a means of conveying apprehension are the through line elements of his oeuvre. This on-brand kind of nihilism has done Solondz well, particularly in a film like Storytelling, whose meta-irony is the ultimate provocation of his art form: a ceaselessly blunt and grim depiction of postmodernism. But with Wiener-Dog, his vision comes across as false and depleted of vitality. The film is not so much funny or revelatory but instead supposedly funny things are pointed out, reminiscent of 90s comedians and their observational humor: “What’s the deal with…?” and “You ever notice how…?” functioning as the foundation to much of Solondz’ vapid philosophy.
More so than with any of his other films, Solondz is dependent on the images of other films to inform Weiner-Dog, with ironic, feces-strewn recalibrations of films like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, and Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis. And the narrative that he begins in Welcome to the Dollhouse and ends in Palindromes, is picked up somewhere in the middle with Greta Gerwig and Kiernan Culkin playing Dawn Weiner and Brandon McCarthy. They compose the second and most interesting vignette in Wiener-Dog, as Dawn has become a vet’s assistant, saving the title dachshund from being put to sleep. This thread is continued from its previous narrative, which finds an opulent suburban wife and husband (led by matriarch Julie Delpy and patriarch Tracey Letts) and their son Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), failing to care for the hopeless pooch, locking it in a cage in the basement.
Both narratives clearly convey that, despite the differences in socioeconomic stature, people are unfit to care for others. Both are also defined by their naïve central character (Remi and Dawn) and depressed by imposing authoritative figures (Remi’s mother and Brandon). Yet in the first narrative, Solondz’ didactic tendencies are so exhausting, to the point that the spectacle of seeing Julie Delpy deliver a monologue on canine raping and venereal disease is reduced to some kind of arch-joke. Gerwig’s narrative taps into a deep-rooted and touching sense of 20-something anxieties, realized with particular salience from its actors. But the malaise of discomfort that Solondz instigates becomes entirely unbearable. His expertly positioned intermission indicates that he’s aware of how dour his material has become, propitiating a measure of humor.
The following two vignettes aren’t so much connected by a narrative – there’s no causal relationship between the two that leads our wiener dog from one story to the next. But it’s here where Solondz’ speechifying reaches its jejune apex. If the riff on Boyhood at the start of the film didn’t clue you in, than the steady progression of age – from Remi to Dawn to Danny DeVito’s professor Dave Schmerz to Ellen Burstyn’s Nana – signals a preoccupation with aging; of our feckless inability to seize the moment; of failing to consider the world at large. If Boyhood celebrated our imperfections and subsequent descent into normalcy, than Wiener-Dog warns of its failures. This becomes disappointingly clear in the film’s final act, where Nana is visited by visions of her former self, each avatar suggesting a separate timeline that takes into account even the pettiest and inconsequential of choices. Tellingly, Nana responds that those weren’t choices, indicating her (and as such, our) failure to truly consider all of our options: we learn to do nothing but passively sit back, overstimulated by choice and without a chooser’s manual.
This sort of nihilism and misanthropy is typically in my wheelhouse; I respond to it because, more or less, I share in its morose worldview. But Solondz’ critical complaint of postmodern living eventually degenerates into whining, failing to acknowledge the modes in which people transverse the empty void of Human Existence. It’s perhaps why I admired the second narrative most: Greta Gerwig’s character acknowledges the emptiness of her existence, and futility attempts to change it. The other characters, whether it is by circumstance or choice, are confined to their stasis and a poor pup is the spectator to their degeneration. What becomes of it is an act of contrition that places you, the viewer, as spectator to an atrocity exhibition.