Wiener-Dog

Review by Elena Lazic @elazic

Directed by

Todd Solondz

Starring

Greta Gerwig Keaton Nigel Cooke Tracy Letts

Anticipation.

Todd Solondz’s films are often furry good.

Enjoyment.

Woof!

In Retrospect.

Looking bark, some great tails in there.

Greta Gerwig provides the spark in American nihilist Todd Solondz’s unofficial sequel to Welcome to the Dollhouse.

Nerd loser extraordinaire Dawn Wiener first appeared in Todd Solondz’s 1995 film, Welcome to the Dollhouse. Fortunately, her return in the director’s latest, Wiener-Dog, is no sentimental homage. Indeed, recently asked whether he was worried the new film would tarnish Dawn’s legacy, Solondz rejected the notion, explaining that Dawn is, ‘just a character’, and one towards whom he didn’t feel any great sense of responsibility.

Greta Gerwig’s take on Dawn has more in common with her character from Frances Ha than it does with the original incarnation. Animated by an admirable and touching sense of moral duty and optimism, she heroically faces up to seemingly insurmountable circumstances, striving to communicate with people whose cruelty appears, in turn, to be concealing profound melancholy and pain.

Yet it’s the eponymous dog that links the stories and characters. The film opens with a reference to dogs as man’s best friend, and the progression from one segment to the next is in turn dictated by the dog’s movement and by how willing the characters are to treat the dog in accordance with that statement. In Solondz’s cruel, nihilistic world, the utterance of such a well-intentioned and cliched idea can only infer imminent suffering for the dog. The culmination of the first story, depicting an outright rejection of the dog by a typical suburban family, proves to be one of the film’s most successful, amusing and bleak moments.

Yet the piecemeal structure of the film dilutes any sustained emotional investment. Too long to be approached as episodes, too short to completely get past the almost pat Solondz-isms, they seem much more powerful in isolation. The juxtaposition of stories appears increasingly arbitrary and they don’t build up to anything particularly meaningful. Although proceedings seem to gravitate towards the promise of more and more cruelty, disappointment and, in the end, death, this development appears artificial and forced.

Wiener-Dog nevertheless remains enjoyable as a series of unrelated but striking vignettes. Solondz reminds us with Gerwig’s sequence that he mastered the formula for disagreeable awkwardness long before it (and Gerwig) became a mandatory convention of American indie cinema. His characteristic sense for well placed moments of physical violence also remains intact, as does his talent for creating three dimensional characters who are likeable and pathetic in equal measure. The film is worth watching alone for Tracy Letts’ performance as an awful LA dad, and for Ellen Burstyn, who brings levity and dark humour to a climactic sequence that borders on the macabre.

Indeed, it is the performances which bring this comically abstracted version of the Todd Solondz film universe to life. And yet, reduced to their bare elements – cynicism, heartbreak, cruelty and violence – the characterisations lack a human touch. The simplicity means that the film is more successful as an exercise in style than it is as a gripping observation of the real world. While Dollhouse and 1998’s Happiness were similarly concerned with blinkered characters – self-centred sometimes to the point of madness – Wiener-Dog pushes this further as it adopts the rather limiting and absurdist point of view of the titular dog, a detached, whimpering observer.

Published 11 Aug 2016

Tags: Greta Gerwig Todd Solondz

Anticipation.

Todd Solondz’s films are often furry good.

Enjoyment.

Woof!

In Retrospect.

Looking bark, some great tails in there.

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