Wiener-Dog must be a really difficult film to promote. The only real marketable aspect of the narrative is the titular canine, and the movie isn’t exactly ideal for dog-lovers.
This is because the film is about problematic people and decidedly uncomfortable situations. Not to mention that the wiener-dog in question is more of a plot device than an important part of the story. Much in the style of Au Hasard Balthazar, the film follows the life of an animal, but examines the lives of those who own the animal. For Wiener-Dog, that means that there are four different sequences, each with its own indie stars, and the only thing that connects the off-beat characters is the wiener-dog (off-beat in its own way, yes?). The reason why this quirky style works so nicely is because it is directed by Todd Solondz (Happiness), who is known for his dark and unique characterizations.
The first sequence involves the adoption of the puppy by a young boy (Charlie Tahan) who has just overcome cancer. Yes, child cancer. It’s probably the least dark moment in the film. His parents, played by Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy, are initially mixed about the choice to get the dog, but soon learn to hate the dog together.
One of the first noticeable aspects of the the film is the intentionally stilted dialogue. Characters wait to speak until the previous line is finished and there is rarely any overlap. These pauses are realistic to life but are cut from most movies, so this choice creates a sense of awkward realism within the movie. It also emphasizes the absurdity of the dialogue and gives the audience a moment to reflect about what has just been said. This in turn works very effectively with the film’s sense of extremely morbid humor.
In the second sequence, the dog has been passed on to an animal nurse, coincidentally named Dawn Wiener (the same character from Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, played by Greta Gerwig this time, rather than Heather Matarazzo). One day, while buying dog food, she runs into her her old middle-school crush, Brandon (Kieran Culkin rather than Brendan Sexton III). Dawn decides to join Brandon on an impromptu road-trip to Ohio, and things only get stranger from there.
In addition to the intentionally awkward dialogue, the movie finds subtle ways to make the film visually awkward as well. Whenever characters enter a new location, the camera is already waiting before they get there. Rather than the car or actor being in frame when the shot begins, the car or actor entering the frame is part of the shot. This not only slows the pace (which is a good thing for this type of introspective and character-driven film) but creates a sense of uncertainty as each new scene begins. Similarly, characters are often framed to the left or the right of center, leaving a lot of extra space and constant unresolved tension.
After a brief intermission (yes, there is one in here and it is glorious), the third sequence begins. Starring Danny Devito as an aging and frustrated screenwriting professor, this sequence is Solondz’s commentary on the film industry. A whole film about these characters would probably seem a bit indulgent, but as a 25-minute segment of a larger movie, Solondz is able to make his points without them consuming the film.
From here the wiener-dog becomes less important to the plot and more of just a recurring character. That said, I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole movie was created just for the visual of Danny Devito walking a wiener-dog. While for the most part the film has the whole dark and awkward shtick down, there is an occasional slip-up that involves something occurring a little too spontaneously, which seems a little out-of-place. This segment also shows that because of the style and tone, a certain emotional connection is stunted. The movie is cute and quirky, but it’s not really hard-hitting.
The last sequence finds our wiener-dog in the hands of an elderly woman (Ellen Burstyn). It’s interesting to note that the caregivers have been increasing in age throughout the film, so all members of the audience have a character of similar age to relate to. This woman’s granddaughter (Zosia Mame) comes to visit after several years. She also brings along her boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael James Shaw), whose art career she asks her grandmother to financially support. This is the most reflective segments, as both Burstyn’s character and the dog are nearing the end of their lives.
Overall, the most important distinguishing feature about Wiener-Dog is that the characters are all unlikable. Thanks to the wiener-dog, all of the characters learn valuable lessons, but they always come through horrifically uncomfortable situations. And because of the film’s aforementioned tendency to take its time with handling these moments, some of the cringe-worthy events happen for a long, long time. The movie is certainly hard to watch at times, but it’s ultimately very rewarding.