Todd Solondz has never been one to shy away from controversy; in a recent interview he described Holocaust drama Son of Saul (2015) as being ‘kind of like the Dardennes remade Weekend at Bernie’s (1989).’ Solondz has made it his life’s work to pick at the scabs of social niceties in films like his splenetic sophomore feature Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), the misanthro-com Happiness (1998) and the bleakly barbed Storytelling (2001). Solondz’s oeuvre occupies dark territory; confronting rape, paedophilia, incest, racism, alienation, failure and despair with acerbic wit and an unforgiving view of human frailty. But Solondz’s more recent offerings, Life During Wartime (2009) and Dark Horse (2011), have hinted at a softening of his implacable irony and cynicism, evincing an odd kind of pathos.
Wiener-Dog tells four stories connected by the travails of a dachshund known variously as Weiner-Dog, Doody and Cancer by its owners: Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a privileged but lonely boy recovering from cancer who is given the dog by his bickering parents (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy); Dawn (Greta Gerwig), a sweet-natured but gullible veterinary assistant who is lured by her old school crush, Brandon (Kieran Culkin), into embarking on a misbegotten road trip; Dave (Danny DeVito), an untenured film professor and struggling screenwriter who is going through a professional crisis; and Nana (Ellen Burstyn), an ailing, housebound artist who receives an unexpected visit from her granddaughter (Zosia Mamet).
Solondz’s latest sees the indie auteur’s vinegary glee melting further into a kind of compassionate despondency, an awareness of the perilous position in which we all find ourselves. But make no mistake, this is still very much a Todd Solondz film. There is the usual caustic humour; there are still Solondz staples like inappropriately frank child/parent conversations and a fascination with what happens when innocence brushes up against bestial impulses; but for all its surface bathos and vitriol, there is a tender core to Wiener-Dog which signifies growth on the part of its creator. A growing technical maturity is also evident; with stylish cinematography from the great Edward Lachman and artfully composed shots which often function as an ironic counterpoint to what they are capturing – a prime example being a stately tracking shot across a trail of Weiner-Dog’s violent diarrhoea.
Gerwig has become one of the shining lights of US indie cinema over the past few years thanks to winsome turns in Frances Ha (2012), Mistress America (2015) and Maggie’s Plan (2015). Gerwig has a knack for playing the amiable but aimless, and her portrayal of Dawn Wiener – a return of the character played by Heather Matarazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse – has all the gawky charm that has made her a staple of Noah Baumbach’s various studies of hipster angst. DeVito has endeared himself to millennials via his scurrilous role in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, but his force as a dramatic actor is often overlooked. Solondz takes full advantage of DeVito’s capacity to convey malaise; functioning as an avatar for Solondz himself, who teaches filmmaking at New York University. Solondz has always had a gift for working with child actors, and Cooke’s Remi has the same precocious spirit as Rufus Read in Happiness and Dylan Riley Synder in Life During Wartime. Culkin is effective as a fading bad boy; Letts and Delpy are entertaining as sparring partners; and Burstyn’s laconic performance is complemented to perfection by the skittish, garrulous Mamet.
But we mustn’t overlook the dog, whose stolid presence serves as the perfect comic foil for the emotional histrionics of her human counterparts. Through the dog’s journey Solondz explores our complex relationship to animals; the various roles they perform, the emotional needs they fulfil. Wiener-Dog is Solondz’s most focused and comedically satisfying offering since his ’90s heyday, and finds the writer/director broadening his emotional palette without losing the vividness of the livid hues that have distinguished his major works. Solondz is still a long way from becoming a mainstream figure, and Wiener-Dog‘s tone will alienate some, but one cannot dispute the enduring force of Solondz’s skewed comic vision.
Follow Daniel Palmer on Twitter at @mrdmpalmer.