Your first pet is often how you learn about the world. It is your first best friend, probably the first thing you see have casual sex, and your first loved one to die. Todd Solondz's new offbeat comedy examines the role of the pet in four vignettes. An elementary school boy, an awkward and lonely 20-something vet tech, a cynical screenwriter on the downward arc of his career, and a bitter old woman all have one thing in common: a dumb brown wiener dog.
The titular dog doesn't do much, mind you. She is actually a remarkably restrained specimen of the dachshund breed. She isn't the calf-biting, mailman menace of so many Far Side cartoons. She doesn't yip. She doesn't bite. She does eat a granola bar and vomit all over the house, but nobody is perfect. For most of the film, Wiener-Dog is simply there.
Solondz's cynical view of humanity is on full display here. A mother (Julie Delpy) explains to her son why the dog needs to be spayed with a story about a big black dog with venereal disease raping other dogs. Sometimes this works, at other times, the film just feels relentlessly bleak, reveling in the futility of its characters. The vignette about an over-the-hill screenwriter (Danny DeVito) is oozing with contempt for hack teachers, film students, agents and directors.
Even through all that cynicism and misanthropy, there is a certain compassion in Wiener-Dog. The kid's parents may be overbearing assholes, but for one wonderful afternoon, he gets to have fun playing with a wiener dog, destroying pillows as feathers fill the air. The vet tech (Greta Gerwig) and her childhood friend (Macaulay Culkin's younger brother Kieran) have no chemistry or charisma whatsoever, but they have a wiener dog to bring them together.
Maybe we're all just looking too deeply for meaning in a movie that has an extended scene of a wiener dog being run over by trucks and cars. Wiener-Dog is a cringe comedy masquerading as a companion film. It's Solondz trying (and usually succeeding) to mine laughs out of a father telling his son, "You need to break a dog. Break their will so they will submit to your will. So they act more like humans." It is a film sneering at how terrible people are, and you are so terrible that you will probably laugh too.
Critic's Grade: C+
see it: Wiener-Dog is rated R. It opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.