A wiener dog is the perfect mascot for Todd Solondz’s films. Dachshunds are ridiculous, funny without trying, but that zero-dignity waddle belies a much fiercer purpose: to hunt and kill small prey. Solondz’s body of work, stretching from coming-of-age cringefest Welcome to the Dollhouse to his newest, Wiener-Dog, has the look of cheesy, innocuous after-school drama, but his dialogue is set to search and destroy hypocrisy. Wiener-Dog has some sharp teeth and stands on its own awkward little legs.
Solondz is no stranger to experimental form; his film Palindromes cast multiple actresses to play the same protagonist. In Wiener-Dog, the form is associative, following a dachshund pup from owner to owner as a vehicle for spying on the humans’ lives. First up is a cold yuppie family, mom and dad played by Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts. They pick up the wiener at the pound with little thought about how to care for it, which is an extension of how little they actually care for their son (Charlie Tahan).
Delpy as Dina is deadpan hilarious when telling her kid at bedtime the story of a serial-rapist dog who terrorized her childhood neighborhood, raping any animal it could. Later, when Dina attempts to explain the spaying and neutering of pets, the son says, “What if Wiener-Dog wants to have babies?” Dina shoots back, “She won’t, that’s a total myth.” The son’s projecting on the dog everything he wants out of his mom, who’s got her own hang-ups, and that’s how it goes from owner to owner, this dog becoming everything people need it to be, including a suicide bomb in a yellow dress.
Greta Gerwig gets the chance to play grown-up Dawn Wiener, the desperate loner from Solondz’s 1995 breakthrough Welcome to the Dollhouse, as she reunites with bully/crush Brandon (Kieran Culkin) for an Ohio road trip. Brandon has to tell his brother (Connor Long) and sister-in-law (Bridget Brown) — who have Down syndrome — that their father is dead, and that conversation plays out like a Who’s on First routine, with Brandon saying their dad died because he started drinking and his brother saying, “But he told me he quit drinking” over and over in a circle. It’s still a touching scene, showcasing the absurdity of “important” moments, where if you look at them from the outside, it’s just a bunch of helpless people trying to exert control over the uncontrollable. But Solondz shows great love toward his characters, no matter how fucked up they may be.
He also adds a rare autobiographical touch with Danny DeVito playing a film-school prof in New York; Solondz is open about the dismal realities of being a name director who has to teach to pay the bills. The social-activist students in their “I can’t breathe” shirts congratulate themselves on being progressive while casting the only one of their teachers who still cares about narrative as a washed-up relic. It hurts, but it’s also what is consistently perfect about Solondz’s films: his ability to poke holes in liberal and PC culture and have it come from the right place, and wrapping it all up in the disarming charm of a little wiener dog.