Twenty years on, and I’m still having trouble getting a bead on Todd Solondz. Wiener-Dog is not exactly a twenty-years-later sequel to 1996’s Welcome to the Dollhouse to accompany this weekend’s twenty-years-later sequel to 1996’s Independence Day. Yet briefly, it totally is. One quarter of the movie’s dog-connected anthology follows Dawn Wiener, the awkward twelve-year-old played by Heather Matarazzo in Dollhouse, as a thirtysomething woman played by Greta Gerwig.
Close followers of Solondz’s work will not a discrepancy: We were told at the outset of his film Palindromes that Wiener gained a bunch of weight and killed herself. It was a non-grace note in a movie that wasn’t even about Dawn Wiener, but did have its main character (her cousin) played by eight different performers. Since that movie, he made one called Life During Wartime that is a direct sequel to the movie Happiness, except with every single character recast. In Dark Horse, Selma Blair quietly reprises a character she played in Storytelling who no longer looks or acts much like she did in the earlier film. The title of the Dawn-resurrecting Wiener-Dog is also the cruel nickname the character was given at school in Dollhouse, but here actually refers to an actual wiener-dog, who scampers through a series of owners, including Dawn Wiener.
So, again I ask: What the hell is going on with Todd Solondz? Does he think of his filmography as an ongoing, mutating art project, where recasting characters throws them into ever more fascinating contexts? Or do a lot of actors not want to work with him again? Does he compulsively revisit aspects of Dollhouse to tweak expectations about how his movies will compare to his still-biggest success? Or can he not leave well enough alone? And am I being a nerdy pedant for finding it kind of annoying, for not ginning up the interest to see Life During Wartime because I thought Happiness was great and had no desire to see a different rep company inhabit and sequelize those roles?
Watching Wiener-Dog did not supply the answers to any of those questions. Watching Wiener-Dog did not even answer the question of whether I liked Wiener-Dog. I certainly found the second segment, wherein Dawn is reunited with Brandon, her sort-of love interest from Dollhouse (now played by Kieran Culkin) and they go on a road trip of sorts, affecting, Gerwig’s awkward charm acting as a balm for the lack of Matarazzo (so terrific in the earlier film). Gerwig (wearing hipster glasses, or are they genuinely out of style?) is surprisingly believable as a Dawn who has managed to gain some semblance of confidence and poise without having it all figured out; she steals the wiener-dog away from her job as a vet’s assistant, and brings him back to her shabby little apartment.
At the risk of sounding prescriptive, this is what Solondz can do when he stops sneering: The segment has deadpan comedy, awkward melancholy, and a real sense of empathy, and doesn’t end by unceremoniously throwing the characters into a ditch (none of the Solondz movies I’ve seen literally do that, presumably because a ditch doesn’t show enough cruelty; what about pits, or jagged cliffs?). In general, Solondz is a fascinating cinematic short-story author; most of his post-Dollhouse movies have been multi-plotline affairs (though Dark Horse was a concentrated character study). Wiener-Dog recalls his bowdlerized Storytelling, where a triptych of stories was turned into a lopsided duo in post – not in any apparent bowdlerization but in the approximate running time of the segments, and the sometimes vicious sense of humor (less present in Palindromes or Dark Horse).
That pops through most clearly in the first segment, wherein a sweet young boy who has just survived a cancer treatment receives the titular wiener-dog as a gift from his short-fused father (overplayed by playwright Tracy Letts), much to the dismay of his mother (Julie Delpy). Solondz loves the spectacle of innocent kids asking questions and hearing answers about the fucked-ness of life, and if it feels a little easy here, Delpy goes on some hilariously horrible tangents (including a story about a “rapist” dog), all delivered with the gentle-voiced calm of someone who is actually helping her son rather than making things worse. This segment doesn’t have a whole lot of depth, but at this length, Solondz’s shock comedy doesn’t feel quite so reductive.
Storytelling also had a devastatingly nasty portrayal of college writing workshops, and Wiener-Dog revisits faux-creative academia in its third piece, where Danny DeVito plays a once-successful screenwriter pitching hacky old saws to jaded, disaffected students who are also, paradoxically, supposed to be turned off by his negativity. Solondz doesn’t quite milk the irony of this distinction; it feels a little like a detail included out of autobiography than coherent character writing; indeed, there’s an extra sting to this material knowing, as so many reviews have already pointed out, that Solondz himself teaches at NYU. It’s great to see DeVito in a meaty role, but at this point, the movie starts to radiate contempt: DeVito’s screenwriting bromides are stupid, his students are stupid and callow, prospective students are stupider, his colleagues are stupidly sensitive to the stupid students’ needs… Todd Solondz thinks everyone is fucking stupid; got it. I doubt Solondz would claim much kinship with the South Park guys (they seem to enjoy their jobs, which I imagine he also thinks is stupid), but that’s how he sometimes comes across: funny, observant, zero-sum.
That ultimately comes close to describing Wiener-Dog, even or especially as its final section goes for broke, devastation-wise. Ellen Burstyn and Zoe Mamet share what is essentially a miniature play as a cranky elderly woman and her transparently manipulative, money-sucking granddaughter, before the movie opens up into a startling scene of regret for Burstyn. Without spoiling anything directly, I’ll only say that Solondz isn’t content with this melancholic, disturbing turn; he has to throw in a nasty punchline, and then a second, nastier toppier that leaves maybe the sourest taste since the second part of Nymphomaniac.
Of course, that’s probably what Solondz is after. His movies rarely end on the upbeat. But is this automatically admirable? Happiness is more actively transgressive than Wiener-Dog, but the latter feels so much more objectionable to me, in the end – more of a fuck-you to an audience too dense to understand its earlier, quieter fuck-yous. I wish I could glory in the “F” CinemaScore this movie would receive were it ever to break wide, but I must admit: I was pretty pissed off by the ending, too. Wiener-Dog deserves some respect, I guess, for its status as a genuine provocation, but it’s worth considering: Who will respond to it with a sick cackle rather than a prudish dismay? Is that what Solondz is after, audiences callous enough to laugh at his despair? Or does he hold them in contempt, too? His movies aren’t exactly unsympathetic – his portraiture is too detailed to become caricature – but I’m starting to wonder if Solondz himself overpowers his often memorable creations. Dawn Wiener may turn out to be alive after twenty years, but don’t get too excited. Solondz can still kill her off again next time.