I have always had a thing against dachshunds. I believe it stems from cartoon watching when I was a child. Back then, if you were a dachshund in a cartoon, you were typecast: you had to wear a monocle, smoke a cigarette in a long cigarette holder and dress like a Nazi officer. (German Shepherds were often the guard dogs, the grunts, but the dachshunds were ALWAYS the officers.) Anyway, the prejudice stuck, and I am still not fond of dachshunds.
So against my better instincts, I went to see Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog. A quirky series of vignettes, performed by an interesting cast, and tied together by a dachshund who is passed from one owner to the next. And while the dog itself has little to do with the different stories, it is the tie that binds, so to speak.
We begin with a young boy (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a cancer survivor, whose father brings the dachshund home to the boy as a companion. The parents are self-absorbed; the boy is understandably interested in death and life and birth; and the mother, played by Julie Delpy, tries to answer his questions honestly. However, she has difficulty with this. (The story she tells to explain why it is important to have the dog spayed is extraordinary in its outlandishness. At one point in the story, the man in front of me moaned at the political incorrectness in her tale.)
The parents cannot handle the dog in their pristine house–who has gotten violently and graphically sick–and quickly take it to the vet to be put down. Here the vet’s assistant (Gretta Gerwig) steals the dog and brings it home. While shopping for dog-food, she meets an old high-school friend (Kieran Culkin) with a heroin problem. He is driving across country to Ohio to inform his brother of their father’s death. For some reason, she decides to accompany him. The dachshund sits on her lap throughout most of the trip and does nothing. Much like Gerwig herself.
Although the wiener-dog is given to Culkin’s brother and his wife in Ohio (Connor Long and Bridget Brown) at the end of Gerwig’s vignette, it next appears in New York City with a film-school instructor, Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito). Schmerz is waiting for his big break; his screenplay has been sitting in offices in Hollywood and it is obvious that the agents are not taking him seriously.
He is also greatly disliked by his students who feel he is a dinosaur and has nothing to offer their uber-hip selves. (One hipster film-student explains just how out of touch Schmerz is by claiming he probably has a box-set of Curb Your Enthusiasm, still watches Seinfeld, and thinks Woody Allen is terrific. Wow!)
And while DeVito’s character puts the dog in an adorable yellow dress and walks her through Manhattan on his way to school, his story is sad and does not end well.
And so somehow the wiener-dog appears next with a curmudgeonly old woman (Ellen Burstyn). She is bitter about her life and her life choices. After her drug-addled granddaughter visits and asks for a very large check to help finance her artist boyfriend, (which she writes), the old-woman is visited by a series of versions of herself–selves she would have been, if she had been different. (This hearkens back to Danny DeVito story, where the teacher is ridiculed for his screenwriting mantra “what if.”)
This story does not end well either.
Wiener-Dog is beautifully shot, particularly the scenes of the little boy and the dog, of the dog and Ellen Burstyn, and the suburban landscapes that Gerwig and Culkin drive through. Full of light and color, they capture an America that always seems to have something hidden right under the surface. And the performances of Keaton Nigel Cooke, Danny DeVito, and Ellen Burstyn are poignant and memorable.
And there is a jokey Intermission sequence where a large Dachshund walks across the American landscape to a cowboy-type theme song, “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog.” It is fun and silly and for a moment takes our mind off some of the more unsettling ideas that lie beneath the tales that we are seeing.
Wiener-Dog is described as a dark comedy. I am discovering that the more I think about it, the darker it becomes.