TODD SOLONDZ is notorious for mercilessly toying with his characters like some kind of sadistic puppeteer—the dude wrote Welcome to the Dollhouse, okay? In the filmmaker’s latest, Wiener-Dog, an adult female dachshund is his primary victim.
Obviously the wiener dog dies, and obviously Solondz doesn’t grant her a peaceful passing. But the protagonist wiener—who, at different points, goes by the names “Wiener Dog,” “Doody,” and, uh, “Cancer”—is primarily a vehicle for Solondz to move through four vignettes of his characters’ fucked-up existences. His tableaus of human vice are bitingly funny, especially as an unforgiving roast of pet owners with savior complexes. But he misses the mark a few times with oddly forced jabs that seem to flirt with backward racist, sexist humor. It’s unbecoming, especially for a director who seems so acutely aware of humanity’s grossest failings. Wiener-Dog features a cameo from Welcome to the Dollhouse’s Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), who’s now grown-up and working as a veterinary assistant. She’s one of many owners of the titular dog, which quietly bears witness to people’s daily misfortunes (and suffers at those people’s hands).
In the first vignette, the wiener dog’s upper-middle-class suburbanite owners repeatedly emphasize to their sickly son how reliant the animal is on humans for survival. But at every turn, Wiener-Dog proves that the canine’s life persists in spite of human intervention. It’s a predictably grim snapshot of human nature from Solondz, but one that celebrates the docile innocence of the wiener dog. This is particularly salient when the camera follows, for what feels like hours, a trail of bloodied dachshund diarrhea to Claude Debussy’s "Clair de Lune."
During each scene you wonder, is this when Solondz is going to kill our sweet wiener dog? It’s exhausting, but these moments of uncertainty drive the film, each one a possible breaking point between the wiener dog’s life and death. A death that, Solondz constantly reminds us, is hugely inconsequential.