PARK CITY, UT: Sometimes a single shot can crystalize a movie’s entire ethos, and that shot comes early in Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog, which premiered before a packed house at the Sundance Film Festival Saturday. It’s a slow, loving dolly shot, moving down a suburban street, artfully framed by the brilliant cinematographer Ed Lachman, scored with exquisite classical music. And the subject is dog diarrhea, an endless spray, pool after pool, on and on, long past the point where the image holds either humor or shock value (depending on where you fall on dog scat). The craft is impressive, but it’s just a bunch of shit on a movie screen. On second thought, maybe the shot isn’t just an apt encapsulation of Wiener-Dog, but of the bulk of Solondz’s output over the past decade and a half.
However, Wiener-Dog is a hot ticket at Sundance this year, mostly for the sake of nostalgia; it was twenty years ago that his breakthrough picture Welcome to the Dollhouse took the festival by storm, winning the Grand Jury Prize and becoming a cult hit. So even those who’d given up on Solondz (hi) were tantalized by the promise that Wiener-Dog is something of a follow-up to that film, albeit with Greta Gerwig and Kieran Culkin taking over the roles originated by Heather Matarazzo and Brendan Sexton III. “It’s funny because in another movie [2004’s Palindromes] I killed her off,” Solondz rasped at the Q&A following Saturday’s premiere. “And one of the nice things about being the writer is you get to do what you want. And I like the idea of creating different trajectories, different possible lives, that Dawn Wiener could have.”
But this isn’t Return to the Dollhouse; the reunion of Dawn Wiener and reluctant beau Brandon McCarthy is but one of four vignettes connected only by the titular canine, in what Solondz described as “a film that would land somewhere in between Au Hasard Balthazar and Benji.” His original owners are a miserable, rich, suburban family headed by Julie Delpy and and Tracy Letts, whose son feeds the dog chocolate granola bars that result in all that diarrhea. The dog goes to the vet, where he’s rescued from death at the last minute by Wiener; she and the dog accompany Brandon on a road trip to see his brother and sister-in-law, who both have Down Syndrome. (If you’ve seen a Solondz film before, you can imagine how well this is handled.)
The third story finds the dog as the sole source of happiness for a washed-up screenwriter/film school professor (Danny DeVito), whose students are tired of his hacky notes and retro viewpoints. (Solondz weirdly chooses to side against the students, depicting them as entitled crybabies; one is sneered at for writing a script about “identity,” and he commiserates with a classmate in an “I Can’t Breathe” T-shirt. Nice touch!) And finally, the dog is the companion of a dying grandmother (Ellen Burstyn), whose granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) is paying one of her very infrequent visits, to ask for money.
Aside from a cheap shot of an ending, the fourth vignette is the only really successful one, a finely-tuned little one act about familial tension, and the points at which we keep on kidding ourselves. It is also, it must be noted, the only one not a retread of Solondz’s earlier work. Aside from the aforementioned Dollhouse sorta-sequel, the opening segment is highly reminiscent of Happiness, particularly with its long parent/child chats and depictions of how adults end up just making shit up to end those conversations; the third segment, with its cynical views of filmmaking and academia, is a return to Storytelling territory.
And that’s the problem with Solondz these days, in a nutshell; he’s just spinning his wheels, continuing to tell the same stories in the same way, and expecting them to elicit the same response. He’s certainly not the first filmmaker to get stuck in a rut, or, if you’d like to put it more charitably, to stick with a particular style; the catch is that his absurd point-of-view was so specific to its late-‘90s moment that it now seems like a relic, a filmmaker trying his hardest to provoke us with his casual mentions of rape and AIDS, but just coming off desperate.
There are things in Wiener-Dog that work; the performers are aces (particularly Burstyn and DeVito), and there’s an amusing “intermission” break (complete with concession reminders) with an animated Western-style “ballad” for our dog hero. But those moments only go so far. In one scene, DeVito sits in on an interview with a prospective film student, whose vapid answers about his inspirations and hopes are comically vague. He wants to be a filmmaker because he has “so much to say,” he assures them; when they press him for what, specifically, he’d like to say, he hem-haws, “Just all of it!” It’s a funny scene. Trouble is, these days, Solondz doesn’t seem to have a better answer himself.