Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Wiener-Dog (2016)

The new Todd Solondz movie Wiener-Dog is funny, sad, and cruel and a host of other potent adjectives. In other words, it's like all Todd Solondz movies, and your adjectival description of it will largely be based on your perspective on him and the world around you. Can you differentiate mean-spiritedness and comedy? Can you find pathos in cruelty? Above all, can you attempt to understand and appreciate Solondz's stance on life even if it's not your own?

What's that stance? Well, as Wiener-Dog and just about all of Solondz's other works indicate, life is confusing, painful, and above all, ugly: from bodily fluids and physical oddities, to the futility of dreams, mental disease, and old age, what is life other than a grand burden? One thing Solondz does value is the comedy that is inextricable from the drama of existence, and something he certainly does not deny is a human's capacity to feel, to engage emotionally with another person. Wiener-Dog in particular has some of the most emotionally raw material Solondz has ever written. I should also be clear in stating that when I say Solondz is interested in emotion while also overemphasizing the ghastly facets of life, he's all but allowing himself to be labeled a humanist. We're back to perspective, and if you cannot see that Solondz prizes existence, perhaps consider it.

Narrative wise this his version of a dog movie, as we follow an adorable, albeit mostly inexpressive Dachshund around from various owners. The four homes the wiener-dog finds herself in suggest a roadmap of sorts through life's stages: We start with a young boy named Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), who gets the dog from his parents (played by Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy, both excellent as always). Remi has the sort of philosophical inquisitiveness typical of the children in Solondz movies, but when it comes to the practical handling of a pet, he's got a few lessons to learn.

Eventually we'll follow Wiener-Dog as she is rescued from euthanasia by Greta Gerwig's Dawn (a resurrection of the character played by Heather Matarazzo in Solondz's first feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse--seen within the context of that film, this segment takes on additional power), who goes on a road-trip with an old high school classmate, played by Kieran Culkin. While this would represent the youth-in-revolt element of the film's "journey-through-life" structure, it's also the kindest and most gentle portion of the story, thanks in large part to Gerwig's awkward vulnerability and sweetness, the polar opposite of when we saw her in last year's Mistress America.

The final two segments of the movie involve Danny DeVito as an aging and emotionally fraught screenwriter and New York film professor, and then finally Ellen Burstyn as an old woman who seems to have had the life sucked out of her and has decided to name Wiener-Dog Cancer. The DeVitto sequence is powerful (one monologue is especially heart-wrenching and is proof that all you need is one dynamite scene to make an unremarkable character a giant) though some of the satire of New York film school seems a bit obvious given the director's eclectic sense of humor. And that's it: The Journey of Life, Todd Solondz-Style.

The dog itself is ultimately less a character than a tool for human investigation. If there is a statement at all about canines here it's the misanthropic notion that the variety of ways humans are rotten renders them incapable of caring for pets. It's a false notion and I doubt one that even Solondz's bleak outlook finds accurate, but it's here because it fits into the director's idea of comedy. Humor is present in everything, intertwined with even the bleakest and toughest of circumstances. Which brings me to the film's ending, which I won't reveal, but nonetheless feel compelled to say something about: It does go too far. I've sat through many a sick joke by Todd Solondz but I always find a way to see where he's coming from and to find virtue in his point of view. Here though I've a hard time looking beyond the sick joke. Ultimately though, I don't mind because I know Solondz doesn't care what anyone thinks about his work as long as they react strongly to it in some way. And I hope he keeps making films. I'll still come back for more.

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