REVIEW: ‘Wiener-Dog’ nails its bitter notes, sours when it goes sweet

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I get the feeling Todd Solondz had a lot of fun making “Wiener-Dog,” in the way that only Todd Solondz could have fun exploring the misery of his characters and pushing them even further.

Your mileage may vary with the ultra-dark humor at play his cinematic vignettes of the lives that intersect with the titular Dachshund, but for all its dour notes, “Wiener-Dog” is, first and foremost, a comedy.

The canine’s first stop in her strange odyssey is the home of Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a sheltered tot who asks every precocious question imaginable. “But what if Wiener-Dog wants to have puppies?” he achingly asks his mother as they drive to the vet to get the pup spayed. Questions about housebreaking quickly evolve into a miniature psychological profile of Remi’s dad, who gives a brilliant, matter-of-fact summation of the way domesticating animals destroys a piece of their very character. If you’re of the right temperament, this heavy-handed heaviness gives you a solid chuckle rather than a knot in your stomach.

If the bite-sized philosophy lessons playing out between Remi, Wiener-Dog and his folks aren’t your speed, Solondz quickly shifts to Remi and Wiener-Dog getting a taste of freedom both have been denied, right down to a pillow-stuffing busting that serves as a idyllic palate cleanser for the nastiness ahead. Let’s just say few in cinema have lingered longer on shots of doggie doo, much less with the beautiful ivory-tickling of “Clair de Lune” on the soundtrack.

And that’s the way it goes with Wiener-Dog’s human companions, for the most part: Sardonic flirtations with freedom and newness, none of which work out terribly well. But there’s always hope at first. It’s Dawn Wiener — all grown up from Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and played by Greta Gerwig — ditching her vet tech gig to go on a road trip with all-grown-up Brandon McCarthy (Kieran Culkin) after a chance encounter at the Food Mart that could just as easily ended with Brandon taking out a restraining order against Dawn. She’ll miss nothing of her current life as she hits the road, she reasons — that’s what hope looks like in the Solondzverse.

It’s also the eternally-springing vigor in downtrodden film professor Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), who comes into possession of Wiener-Dog (who by this point has also been redubbed “Doodie” for her temperamental gastrointestinal system) as he pines for someone to read his script and pull him from the misery of an academic enclave that has little use for his strident negativity.

There’s even hopefulness in Nana (Ellen Burstyn), a glum yet give-a-crap-less, Kaopectate-chugging grandmother who’s bestowed yet another name on Wiener-Dog — “Cancer.”

What anyone familiar with Solondz’s work knows is that these hopes are surely to be dashed in ways both heartbreaking and clever. What makes “Wiener-Dog” a difficult view is just how hard it is to feel like each piece of it is earnest. There’s something genuinely sublime in how some of these characters achieve a measure of peace amidst their existential aches. But others seem as goofy and nonchalant as the all-too-brief-to-be-a-real-intermission intermission, which consists of a two-minute montage of Wiener-Dog traversing the countryside as a Western-esque ballad, giving the pup a strange heroic quality that is virtually denied to any of Solondz’s two-legged characters.

Again, the issue with Solondz is not the same as his film professor avatar Schmerz (“The general consensus is you’re too negative,” as Schmerz is advised, surely has been directed at Solondz more times than he could count). If anything, the dark contemptuous spirit that seethes through his films works as well as it has in any film.

What Solondz has difficulty with could be true of many of us out in the world at large: Getting the happy parts right. But that’s for us, the audience, to work out. There’s only so much in the way of frivolity to expect when you plunk down your money for the ticket to this sinisterly comedic ride. But when you consider the source and spend any amount of time staring into the mocking maw of “Wiener-Dog” and you’ll know that Solondz must have had fun making this one. 

“Wiener-Dog” is rated R. Running time: One hour, 30 minutes. Three stars out of five.