Out of the 50 reviews posted as of writing, Wiener-Dog currently has 32 one-star ratings on Amazon Prime, and six five-stars. A selection of quotes from the reviews include (verbatim): “Awful ending, if you love your dachshund please don’t watch this”, “Horrific film! Just horrible and objectifying and abusive!” and “sickening, so much so that I got my partner to get rid of the dvd the next day. Don’t waste your time and money on this, the only good thing is the picture of the dog on the dvd cover”.
It appears many dog owners saw Wiener-Dog on Prime on a Saturday night and settled in with their partner (and, perhaps, their canine) for a heart-warming doggy comedy-drama along the lines of the classics: Beethoven, Marley & Me, Old Yeller. Instead, what they got was a film that dealt to varying degrees with depression, euthanasia, sterilization and addiction. In many ways, this perfectly illustrates the work of director Todd Solondz.
I’m a big fan of Solondz – his 1998 film Happiness is about as dark and misanthropic as they get, focusing as it does on loneliness, sexuality and absurdity as well as, most controversially, paedophilia. His work is never not divisive, but it’s also generally well observed and rarely boring, and in making a film about a dog, whose animal innocence is the central axis on which the film’s morality pivots, he has the perfect means through which to express his essential misanthropy. Hence all the dog owners who hate him.
Wiener-Dog centres on a dog, unsurprisingly, who circumstance brings into contact with a number of different people, from a struggling academic teaching scriptwriting (badly) to a compassionate, softly spoken millennial, to an innocent boy coming to terms with the cruelties and difficulties of life—and so on. Human experience and the absurdity of it are illustrated by how the various characters treat and view the Wiener-Dog.
It’s not exactly subtle as a concept, nor is it original, but it does work. From lying to children for convenience – Julie Delpy’s character tells an impossibly grim, politically incorrect story about what happens when a dog isn’t spayed; one that involves her childhood pet being raped by an evil, rabid dog named “Muhammed” – to breaking devastating news to vulnerable relatives, the dog plays a role in forcing the various cast of characters to confront the disappointments and illusions of their own lives.
And what a cast it is. Understated like Solondz himself, and with Danny DeVito representing perhaps the only true Hollywood A-List name, it’s what the director gets out of his actors that keeps the film light when it could descend into pure, dark, existential misery. Kieran (the superior) Culkin; Greta Gerwig (the 21st-century, more wholesome Chloë Sevigny); Julie Delpy; Ellen Burstyn; Zosia Mamet (the latter two have the best scene in the film). All make sure it’s deeply comic and deeply melancholic. Solondz doesn’t put his characters in uncomfortable situations just to provoke (as he was accused of doing in Happiness). There’s genuine empathy there.