Wiener-Dog review – Gerwig, Delpy and DeVito, united by a dachshund, divided by Solondz

An adorable mutt is at the heart of Todd Solondz’s deeply disturbing portmanteau comedy, starring Ellen Burstyn, Danny DeVito, Julie Delpy – and Greta Gerwig as the grown-up heroine of Welcome to the Dollhouse

Todd Solondz is a film-maker who’s built his entire career on a divine ability to severely divide audiences – and really anger his dissenters. Happiness, his most memorably divisive film, was a dark comedy that mined uncomfortable laughs from a storyline largely centred on the activities of a paedophile. It was so controversial in fact, that the Sundance film festival, known for screening edgy fare, flat out refused to show it in 1998 due to its illicit content.

No child molesters creep into Solondz’s eighth feature, Wiener-Dog, but his latest proves the film-maker, at 56 years old, has lost none of his bite. However, the plot description would lead you to believe otherwise.

Sundance’s official summary of the film reads: “Wiener-Dog tells several stories featuring people who find their life inspired or changed by one particular dachshund, who seems to be spreading a certain kind of comfort and joy.” Indeed, that “one particular dachshund” features prominently in each of the four mostly unrelated vignettes that make up the film, although Solondz leaves it unclear how the canine lands with each of its strange owners. But Wiener-Dog doesn’t find Solondz going light to deliver an inspirational medley. Instead, he’s created arguably his most caustic film since Happiness.

Like much of Solondz’s output, Wiener-Dog is essentially a slew of short films, populated by an obscenely illustrious cast, including Julie Delpy, Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn and Zosia Mamet.

A boy and his dachshund
Photograph: Sundance Film Festival/SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL

Delpy kicks things off with her trademark acerbic delivery as Dina, a mother of a young boy recovering from cancer who really shouldn’t be a mother at all. Her husband surprises the family by adopting the dachshund, which the child names Wiener-Dog, but Dina immediately takes a deep dislike to the new addition. While tucking her son into bed, she recounts how her non-neutered childhood dog was “raped” by a stray dog named Muhammed, which resulted in her pet dying while giving birth to stillborn puppies.

Things cheer up with the arrival of Greta Gerwig as Dawn Wiener, the grown-up version of the shy, unpopular seventh grader played by Heather Matarazzo in Solondz’s breakout film, Welcome to the Dollhouse. She’s now a timid veterinarian’s assistant. Following a lucky series of events, Dawn comes to care for the adorable dachshund, before embarking on a strange road trip with an old classmate.

Next up is Danny DeVito in a tour-de-force performance as a film professor at his wit’s end with his uninspired students and insipid colleagues. This sequence lets Solondz, who’s never betrayed his independent roots to parlay his talents into the mainstream arena, tear into Hollywood’s vacuous nature - and it’s a hoot to watch.

Solondz leaves his best for last with the film’s closing chapter, which focuses on Nana, a massively embittered elderly woman (Ellen Burstyn in her best performance since Requiem for a Dream). When her estranged granddaughter (Mamet) shows up unannounced and asks what to call the cute household dachshund, she’s shocked to learn it’s named Cancer. “It felt right - everyone’s dying,” says Nana.

A sequence during which Nana dreams of how her life could have been better had she played her cards differently is the film’s chief highlight: mordantly funny, but most importantly, poignant.


Nigel M Smith in Park City, Utah

The GuardianTramp

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