Indie filmmaker Todd Solondz is without doubt the misanthrope of mirth. But what else can you expect considering Solondz’s choice of subject matter. His focus is on the banalities and the underbelly of Middle-America. Those that get lost in the shuffle and end up in the weird never regions between being comfortable and all at sea. Enter Wiener-Dog.
The best way to describe Wiener-Dog is not so much a black comedy as a black-hole comedy. There are moments of real jarring, nastiness and outrageousness here. Genuine bleakness and cynicism. Solondz focus on the beleaguered American Middle class actually gives us a gallery of callous, damaged and at times charmless characters. Exaggerating the mundanity of daily life to the point where it becomes strange and dreamlike or conversely nightmarish. This is a film not heavy on dialogue but one of awkward, painful pauses and plenty of inane middle class small talk. It appears Solondz holds the notion of the American Dream with as much contempt as ever.
None of this better summed up than in the first of the four stories that make up this film.
Poor little Remi (Keaton Michael Cooke), a boy with a seemingly comfortable life but awful parents in Dina (Julie Delphy) and Danny (Tracy Letts). They are a pair of hapless, aloof self-absorbed beleaguered middle aged parents out of their depth. What’s more their views in the world are fit to breed a murderous psychopath. However, like everything in this film the humour makes things watchable rather than unbearably bleak and the characters irredeemable. This is encapsulated with an outrageously racist but hilarious story Dina tells her son about a dog named Mohammed. One of a number of moments that drew the sounds of horrified laughter from the audience.
From here on in though, the mood brightens somewhat. Its almost as if Solondz was having a particularly bad day when he made the first short film of this anthology and released most his spitefulness into it. I say most, as the ending is like a being blindsided with a punch in the side of the head.
Solondz probably gets a kick out of that kind of reaction. However, those moments are not so mean spirited that they would fit seamlessly into a Michael Bay film. Solondz understands that black humour without context is crass and mean. To push things so far over the edge to make a point and ridicule the characters and not endorse their views.
Solondz also provides a link to his brilliant coming-of-age drama, Welcome to the Dollhouse in the beautifully bittersweet second. With the return of the character Dawn Wiener – the always likable screen presence of Greta Gerwig – and her one-time school friend/bully Brandon (Kieron Culkin). Which does give something of a happy ending, even if it is tinged with some tragedy.
One thinks Solondz gets a kick out of that kind of reaction. However, those moments are never mean spirited which is why the comedy succeeds. Solondz understands that black humor without context is crass and mean. To push things so far over the edge to make a point and ridicule the characters Something Sacha Baron Cohen would do well to learn.
Cutting through the middle of everything is a weird and wonderful intermission to the song of “The Ballad of the Wiener-Dog” all about the most likable character in the whole film. The adorable little dachshund that links the four stories together. Or is it several? At points in the film the dogs in each story look very obviously distinguishable from one another. Its very clearly a question we are supposed to be asking. Nevertheless, Wiener-Dog(s) carries itself with a quiet distinction that the people lack.
The last two short films focus on characters in their twilight years lamenting over regrets and lives never lived. Danny DeVito’s Schmertz, (apparently German for “pain”) is a pitiful, failed screenwriter and professor despised by his students. Then the excellent Ellen Burstyn plays the ageing, blind Nana owner of a wiener-dog called “Cancer”, visited by her grasping granddaughter and her outlandish artist boyfriend Fantasy, who may be abusing her and is certainly cheating on her. Both of these central older characters are set into bitterness and disillusionment reminiscent of Sam Mendes’ American Beauty.
This is film is very good, with some beautiful cinematography by Edward Lachman, but it does leave with you with a feeling of ambivalence at times. Then again maybe that’s the point of it all. There are plenty of moments of jet black comedy but also some sweetness as well but the ending, seemingly Solondz trying to remind us, or himself, that he hasn’t gone soft in middle aged presents an ending that brutally shocks and can leave you scratching your head.