‘Wiener-Dog’ barks up wrong tree

Amazon Studios/Courtesy
"Wiener-Dog" | Amazon Studios/IFC Films
Grade: C+

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A satirical romp in four bitter acts, “War Horse” meets whiny white suburbia: “Wiener-Dog” reaches for biting humor but instead feels muzzled.

Writer-director Todd Solondz, known for his caustic directorial vision in such works as “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness,” has once again given life to his layered critique of white American suburban life. Featuring a wicked cast of comedic dark horses like Danny Devito, Zosia Mamet and Kieren Culkin, a film that should have worked on every level feels like a mid-deflated balloon struggling to float.

The film follows the path of one dachshund in its silent, ever-watchful journey through the maw of middle America. She finds herself swapped from owner to owner, each one losing sight of Wiener-Dog in the midst of their quiet, embarrassing personal agonies.

“Wiener-Dog,” a film that is at once a slow burn and a gut punch, seems to have been framed and marketed as a dark comedy. Whether or not that was Solondz’s intention remains to be seen, but unfortunately the film tonelessly fails in this respect.

Each story is more depressing than the last. Wiener-Dog, going by many names throughout her trajectory, passes hands from loneliness to loneliness. After a stint with a well-meaning upper-middle class white family that leaves Wiener-Dog close to death and slated to be euthanized, the titular dachshund is exchanged between significantly lonely characters played by Greta Gerwig, Danny Devito and Ellen Burstyn.

The absurdity of each vignette lies in each dog owners’ inability to be consoled by the dachshund’s company and attention. Somehow, each owner treats the dog with less respect than the last.

Solondz plays with notions of animacy here, conveying the unusual relationship between dog owners and dogs in the United States. As Wiener-Dog remains ever constant, human characters vacillate between adoration and deep disrespect. Even when humans take time to care for the dog, the act is a selfish one. Human relationships with Wiener-Dog throughout the film are one-sided and revolve around people’s own relationships with themselves.

Throughout his career, Solondz has been adept at striking a balance between his critiques of privilege in white America — morbid, distressing and without remorse — and the shiny comedic gloss of keen comedic tone and timing, which have saved his work time and again from being bogged down with his brand of immoral moralism.

In this respect, “Wiener-Dog” has lost that balance. Plodding through this movie becomes a chore. This could be a problem of pacing. Solondz plays with lapses in conversation and uncomfortable silence to mimic the reality of dialogue in real life and to play with the difficult relationship people have with silence. The result is a weighed-down, silence-heavy film with a dense tone and little to say in the spaces between.

To mask this silence, “Wiener-Dog” is set to a singular themed score and a jaunty theme song, as per each piece’s desired effect. The score, a medley of bogged down woodwinds and strings heard at every moment of difficult vicissitude for human characters, serves to further burden the movie with the weight of its own heavy-handedness. The theme song, then — a ludicrous piece of alt-country to mockingly lighten the mood — is set in contrast to the theme score. Each piece serves to make an absurdity of the other.

All this being said, Solondz’s tonal and pacing choices succeed in those moments of the film’s greatest agony. Long shots and brooding moments serve to communicate the humiliating human torment with simultaneous relish and pathos. Where “Wiener-Dog” fails to elicit a laugh it instead sends shivers down the spine.

The pacing especially triumphs in moments in which shots linger on the grotesque. Long-panning shots through bleak cages in the pound and along a path of the dachshund’s post-granola diarrhea along a driveway don’t shy away from the traumas faced by Wiener-Dog at the hands of humans, who carelessly mistreat the dog in the face of their own pain.

“Wiener-Dog,” unable to hit its mark as a comedy, still offers a sardonic critique of middle America through its depressing human characters. Solondz’s misanthropic Americana offers a bleak picture of the country Wiener-Dog traverses.

That image, while grim and important, might just not be one anyone wants to fetch after.   

Contact Justin Knight at j[email protected].