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Todd Solondz’s latest movie is about a dog, but it’s not exactly Lassie Come Home. Come to that, Wiener-Dog (opening in the UK next week) is not really about a dog either. How do you start to unscramble a new film from the caustic, cryptogrammatic creator of Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness and Dark Horse? With an unsentimentality you could slice with a knife — or whose cutting-edge bleakness might slice you — Solondz follows an ill-fated and ill-fating dachshund bitch as she moves between four consecutive owners and stories.
The dog looks cutely at each of her masters or mistresses in turn, with that doggy quizzicality that can melt the heart. But a few “aahs” or “oohs” are all we’re allowed, because her paw-print on the script diminishes tale by tale. The role of glistening-eyed mirror to the characters becomes, by osmosis or transference, ours — even though Wiener-Dog has at least one telling or traumatic misadventure per episode. (Hold your jaw from dropping to the floor when Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” accompanies a long-drawn-out scene of digestive accident.)
A dog sops up tragedy and comedy without understanding either, and that’s what Solondz is saying of humanity too. Life’s pathos is that we don’t get it; yet we battle on regardless. So the cancer-survivor kid with the bullying dad, the neo-hippy veterinarian trying to do good works (Greta Gerwig as Dawn Wiener, presumably the now-grown-up heroine of Welcome to the Dollhouse), the Hollywood screenwriter despairing of truth and artistic fulfilment (Danny DeVito as a buffo alter ego for Solondz) and the bitter, poignant old lady (Ellen Burstyn, superb) visited by a sponging granddaughter: they may all be going to purgatory in a pushcart.
But the film’s own bitter beauty is that the four characters, or character sets, are really one, and are really us. We’re watching the ages of Every(wo)man. Life’s miscarriages and miscalculations are sad, ghastly or sometimes hysterical; we know we can never go back to repair them. All we can offer is a Candide-like optimism, celebrated in a best-sense-hysterical “midlude” halfway through the film. In a high-volume, high-colour hymn to Wiener-Dog, our Citizen Canine struts across the composited landscapes of a folkloric America amid ad banners announcing a mid-movie intermission that never, of course, comes. It’s very funny. It’s a gift from Solondz in Christmas mood to an audience knowing that what has gone before and will come after in this film is a screen Halloween hounded by grimmest humour.