Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Jul 02, 2016 7:23 am 
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Life sucks. Ha!

Wiener-Dog has Todd Solodz's usual polish (and Ed Lachman's elegant cinematography). And his world-view is as dark as ever. Though billed as comedy, this episodic film - four stories linked by a single female dachshund seemingly passed from owner to owner - offers little to laugh about. Leave the theater not feeling suicidal and you'll be doing well.

The dog owners are: Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a sweet, lonely kid recovering from cancer (and his mean parents, Judy Delpy and Tracy Letts); Dawn (Greta Gerwig), a character from the director's 1995 Welcome to the Dollhouse, who passes her on to a couple with down syndrome (Connor Long and Bridget Brown); a failed New York screenwriter and film teacher called Schmerz - German for “pain” (Danny DiVito); and finally a a depressed and angry old blind lady (Ellen Burstyn), the "Nana" of bleach-blond Zoe (Zosia Mamet), who shows up for the first time in three years to ask for money, accompanied by Fantasy (Michael James Shaw), a preening and angry black boyfriend who's an installation artist.

Solondz's work, always worth seeing, is original and challenging, and often touched by bright visual beauty, one of its more pleasing ironies (since the content is usually grim). But I began to part company with him in the very first episode, with poor Remi's smarmy and mendacious mom, who tells him lies to justify spaying and euthanizing his dear pet, and his big ugly dad, who yells "Heel, motherfucker!" when he drags "Wiener-Dog," as Remi names her, on a walk. Then I completely departed with a long tracking shot showing a seemingly endless trail of dog excrement (Weiner-Dog's, caused by Remi's mistakenly feeding him a granola bar), to the tune of Debussy's "Claire de Lune." Whatever that's meant to convey, its stylishness can't save it from being tasteless and heavy-handed.

Wiener-Dog is rescued from euthanasia by his namesake, since that's what Dawn was called by mean schoolmates in the earlier film. Now she's become a vet's assistant, who runs away to save the lustrous brown bitch from being "put to sleep." By sheer indie happenstance she abruptly joins an old classmate who used to abuse her, the chilly Brandon (Kieran Culkin), who takes them to Ohio to seek family, or crystal meth. His brother is the male partner in the down syndrome couple. The escape with Brandon isn't cheery, but there's some hope and fun in saving the dog and running away from a grim job.

It is interesting to see these actors who've often been lively and funny transformed into Solondzians. I didn't even recognize Julie Delpy at first. Culkin and Gerwig I did, but how drab and homely they'd become was shocking. And DiVito and Bursten, how old and sad! The trouble with the film is its episodes are unrelated, and except for Remi nobody even really pays all that much attention to t the dog, whose life is kept at one remove. As Anthony Lane puts it, "the depths of doghood remain unplumbed." She's just an artificial link between stories. (Symbolic of this link, there's a mid-way "Intermission" where the dachshund trots determinedly through contrasting landscapes, to Western music.) I can't find the humanity and moral commentary on society Armond White sees here. He says Wiener-Dog is "not only a state-of-the-art movie, it’s a state-of-the-world movie." The problem with that interpretation is that is the skits are too lonely and limited. Only the film school one involving DiVito suggests a society. One could say Solondz shows "our" isolation.

Apart from the handsome cinematography, assured style, and fine name actors, there are a few memorable moments. Remi, the sweet, hopeful boy, may be a portrait that's sickly-sentimental, but his faith and openness are moving and real. Also infinitely sad and touching is the scene where Brandon has to repeat over and over to his down syndrome brother that yes, their alcoholic father did stop drinking and get better, but then he began to drink again, and died. "But he got better," the brother keeps repeating, his difficulty in understanding heartbreaking. Nana is a Scrouge character, and prior to her demise she's visited by a host of little girls with long curly pre-Raphaelite tresses symbolizing all the positive worlds she might have embraced, but rejected. This has potential for a brave overt moral lesson, but it would work, as Dickens' story does, only if the other sections had a tightly interconnected structure with a similar strong message, which they don't. Anthony Lane is not alone in saying Solondz's fillms (this one particularly), though in style full of calm sophistication, express a childlike rage, so Wiener-Dog may express Remi's point of view, or the kind of film he might make if he became a filmmaker without ever growing up. A disappointment.

Wiener-Dog, 90 mins., debuted in January 2016 at Sundance, showing at a half dozen other festivals, including Seattle and San Francisco. Its US theatrical release came 24 June 2016.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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