Look, it’s a Wiener Dog!
The Wiener Dog, aka the Hot Dog, aka the Dachshund, is one of the more smile-inducing pups in God’s kingdom. Dachshunds probably are not aware of just how funny and endearing they look as they zip about on those four short legs, but they’re a hoot.
In Todd Solondz’ weird and melancholy and stinging and funny and heartbreaking and slightly sick “Wiener-Dog,” a dachshund who goes by many names is passed from owner to owner for a variety of reasons, acting as the conduit for what is basically a series of short films about typically Solondz-ian eccentric characters.
There’s even an honest-to-goodness “Intermission” you won’t want to miss.
This movie is more bite than bark. It has legs. It’s no shaggy dog story, I’m telling ya. Although one scene near the beginning of the film and one near the very end DID make me want to look away and play dead.
Sorry. On with the tail. Er, tale.
Warning to parents: Your kids might have loved “Finding Dory” and “The Secret Life of Pets,” but please resist all temptation to make it an animal trilogy with “Wiener-Dog.” This is for adults — adults with a strong stomach and an appetite for the dark cinematic musings of Solondz, whose previous work includes “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Storytelling” and “Palindromes.”
When we meet Wiener-Dog, he has been gifted to a little boy named Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) who is in remission from leukemia. His father, Danny (Tracy Letts), thinks the Wiener-Dog (as he’s called) will be good for the boy and teach him responsibility; his mother Dina (Julie Delpy) thinks it’s a horrible idea and isn’t shy about saying so.
I’m not even sure what style of acting Tracy Letts is employing, but it’s one unique piece of work, as he barks out his lines like a drill instructor and even stands in a way I’ve never seen anyone stand in real life or on camera, ever. Delpy also kills in a long and very twisted monologue in which she explains in horrific detail to her son why Wiener-Dog should be spayed. (There’s a lot of talk about a horrible serial rapist dog in Europe.)
After Remi feeds Weiner-Dog a granola bar, leading to … well, disaster, Danny brings the pup to the vet to be put down — but the vet’s assistant Dawn (Greta Gerwig, all big glasses and wide-eyed wonderment) kidnaps Wiener-Dog and nurses her back to health. Next thing we know, Dawn is on a road trip to Cleveland with her childhood friend Brandon (Kieran Culkin), whom she hadn’t seen in years until bumping into him at a convenience store.
Culkin gives one of the more interesting performances of his career as Brandon. We’re not sure if this guy has serial killer potential or if he’s just a little off, but once we get to Cleveland, we see another, unexpected side of Brandon.
Later Wiener-Dog winds up with Danny DeVito’s Dave Schmerz, a sad-sack film-writing professor at a middling college who sold one mediocre screenplay some 19 years ago and has become something of a joke among the student body. Schmerz walks around as if there’s an actual black cloud hovering just about him. (“Schmerz” comes from a German term that means “ache” or “pain.”) Wiener-Dog is his constant companion, but he barely pays attention to Wiener-Dog — until he uses Wiener-Dog to carry out a twisted bit of mayhem.
Finally Wiener-Dog lands with Ellen Burstyn’s Nana, an artist who is losing her eyesight. Zosia Mamet (“Girls”) is Nana’s granddaughter, visiting for the first time in four years and bringing with her a horrible human being who calls himself Fantasy (Michael James Shaw) and fancies himself a great artist. Nana confronts her own mortality in a dream/nightmare sequence that will give you the chills.
In fact, all of the four vignettes in “Wiener-Dog” touch on mortality and how humans — the only beings on the planet who are aware of their own inevitable fate — deal with the deaths of loved ones and the knowledge their day could be coming, in some cases sooner rather than later.
And through it all, there’s our Wiener-Dog, proud and playful and a little mischievous and fiercely loyal to whoever has the hand that pets her and feeds her and scratches her ears with love.
Amazon Studios and IFC Films present a film written and directed by Todd Solondz. Running time: 90 minutes. Rated R (for language and some disturbing content). Opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre.