Todd Solondz Gives Dawn Wiener a New Life in Wiener-Dog

Todd Solondz won the praise of critics—and earned a lasting cult following—with his breakthrough 1995 indie debut, Welcome to the Dollhouse. Little did the writer/director know that the film’s tragicomic heroine—the hilariously unlikeable, misfit teenager Dawn Wiener (played by Heather Matarazzo)—would be a character he’d follow in his later work. Dawn re-emerges in Solondz’s Palindromes, only the film opens at her funeral; Dawn had continued on her miserable personal trajectory before committing suicide.

If any of that strikes you as outrageously depressing, well, you’re missing the joy of Solondz’s wonderfully dark humor. At a recent Cinefamily screening of his latest film, Wiener-Dog, he gave a brief introduction, saying, “I always describe my movies as sad comedies. This film is more like a comedy in despair.”

And indeed, it is. Wiener-Dog follows four eccentric characters who are connected through their ownership of the same adorable chocolate dachshund. It’s also the third in the Wiener Trilogy, as Dawn Wiener is resurrected in the second vignette.

Each of the dog’s keepers is stranger (and yes, sadder) than the last: A young cancer survivor (Keaton Nigel Cooke), Remi, gets the dog first, aptly naming her Wiener Dog, and asks his mother (Julie Delpy) questions about life and death, to which she responds with horrible, deadpan ineptitude. Remi is blissfully happy with Wiener Dog, but then he ignorantly feeds the dog granola, leading the poor pup to leak diarrhea all over the house and sidewalk, shown in a lengthy camera pan set to “Clair de Lune.”

From there, she’s saved from being euthanized by Dawn Wiener (now played by Greta Gerwig), who’s, more hopefully, a veterinary assistant in this life. Dawn encounters her Dollhouse bully/crush Brandon McCarthy (Kieran Culkin) at a convenience store, who greets her with the same nickname from their adolescence: “Hey, Wiener Dog!” The two decide to pack up and trek across the country, stopping at one strange house after another, and picking up the saddest mariachi band in the world, before reaching Brandon’s brother and sister-in-law—who both have Down syndrome—so Brandon can painfully explain to his brother that their father died. Dawn and Brandon leave the dog with the couple and head out on their own uncertain futures.

Cut to a short, bizarre intermission segment of the dog walking through different locations, after which the film gets significantly darker and our traveling dachshund heroine becomes less and less part of the narrative. Wiener Dog’s next owner is David Schmerz (Danny DeVito), an aging adjunct professor and screenwriter struggling to stay relevant. Schmerz is deemed too “negative” and out of touch by his millennial, liberal-minded students, which puts him on a slowly descending spiral and leads to him sending his pooch on a suicide mission to blow up the school.

In the final part of the film, Wiener Dog is owned by a rich, curmudgeonly invalid (Ellen Burstyn) who names the dog Cancer. Her mooching granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) comes to borrow money for her philandering boyfriend’s art project, and she’s also later visited by the ghost of her childhood self, as well as those of the lives she could have lived, from the profound (“Here’s you if you forgave your daughter”) to the inane (“Here’s you if you tipped better”).

Solondz takes his inspiration for Wiener-Dog, with its heavy theme of life and death, from the 1966 Robert Bresson film, Au Hasard Balthazar, which follows the short life and death of a donkey in the hands of various owners. Both films use the goodness and purity of docile, domesticated creatures to magnify their masters’ own flawed, self-absorbed lives, as well as their existential angst. As in most of Solondz’s films, these characters are marginalized—or cruelly rebuffed—by society in some way, left to wonder about their place in this big ol’ world.

But Solondz doesn’t fixate on their suffering—which is their constant state of being. Instead, we’re witness to their awkward (and uproarious) attempts at normalcy through their interactions with those around them, who are just as contemptible and self-absorbed, forcing the viewer to ask, “What is normal?” Wiener-Dog oscillates between absurd, cartoonishly bad situations and tender, optimistic moments before it treads to its grim conclusion. Life may not always be a walk in the park, but there’ll always be something to laugh about.

Wiener-Dog was written and directed by Todd Solondz; and stars Greta Gerwig, Julie Delpy, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Kieran Culkin, Zosia Mamet, Tracy Letts and Keaton Nigel Cooke. Now screening at Regency South Coast Village, 1561 Sunflower Blvd., Santa Ana, (714) 557-5701; Check website for show times.

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