In a body of work featuring cannily observed jet-black comedy, formal feats of daring and inquiries into the darkest recesses of human behaviour, Todd Solondz's latest appears whimsical in the extreme – but its bite is much more pronounced than its bark.
Does the comedy land? Yes. Are there moments of immense cuteness? Undeniably. But is there explicit grotesquerie? Is this something I'd turn dog-lovers away from? Yes and yes. As ever, a film of contradictions.
The titular dachshund is passed from owner to owner – the only constant character in a series of short films about mortality, whose name is changed as we go. And the humans around her are remarkably, mundanely cruel to one another. Wiener-Dog gets to be a lonely boy's best friend in the opening quarter – he serenades her with his flute, they deliriously trash the house in slo-mo when his parents are away – but mother Julie Delpy does some horrible parenting, having the dog spayed and manipulating her son into believing it's for the dog's benefit. Our heroine gets to be a playmate, a victim of incarceration and of 'civilising' this early on.
Act Two brings back the recurring Solondz character of Dawn Wiener, protagonist of Welcome to the Dollhouse who has a kinder future imagined for her here than she had in Palindromes. The tenderest passage has Dawn (pitch-perfect Greta Gerwig making it look easy) get together with Brandon (Kieran Culkin): the bullied and the bully (who seemingly can't remember the torment once inflicted upon his fellows) holding hands in the face of an unwritten future. Again, Solondz refuses to allow any purely evil characters into his film – Brandon has backstory and more heart than his expressionless expression conveys.
There follows a stylised intermission in which Wiener-Dog ambles, Naked Gun-style, through assorted scenes to establish her ironic-mystical 'everydog' status. This break from narrative shows that nothing's to be taken at face value here, and her hilarious theme song lodged itself in my head for the journey home. A notable musical slippage from the diegetic into the non-diegetic occurs when Dawn's lullaby reappears as a smoothly sung audio-cameo by The Cardigans' Nina Persson. Such 'clever' devices are, more importantly, funny. But there is waste involved – hire a fine vocalist only to sing the word 'doodie'? Cut the one scene featuring Oscar-winner Brie Larson? This collaboration with DP Ed Lachman features evocative shots, but asking the smoke-and-mirrors master of Carol to track along a worryingly lengthy stretch of dog excrement reinforces the sense of waste, however comic the intentions behind it.
Danny DeVito's segment has drawn most appreciation, and his washed-up screenwriter wrings pathos out of a potentially stock-crotchety character. Reduced to being mocked by the clueless film students he lectures, his Dave Schmerz wants to get noticed for something he has created. Even if Solondz's gripes with indie film stereotypes get an airing here, this section shows most fully the wonderful storytelling ability of its writer-director. Enjoy.
The final quarter has an ailing, misanthropic Ellen Burstyn blacken the comedy further still as she 'welcomes' her granddaughter to her home. Again, no-one gets to be fully good or fully bad, and that any sympathy is evoked for such characters is testament to the actors and their script. Now I'm torn – is this a cruel film? Many of its interactions and distasteful visuals may indicate as much, but while its stories certainly unfold in a cruel universe, there is still aspiration in its most hopeless character, still a flash of compassion in its most sociopathic. It's not a universe I'd want to spend more time in, but embodying innocence through it all is a surprisingly hardy, incontinent little dachshund. The dog abides.