A comedy-drama anthology that is far more drama than black comedy, 2016’s Wiener-Dog, written and directed by Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Lifetime During War), centres on a series of short, personal stories, all connected by the titular sausage-resembling canine. And while Wiener-Dog certainly has its moments as a mordantly witty tour of the human condition, seen from the low-slung position of an ordinary dachshund, Wiener-Dog‘s distinct combination of bleak storytelling and deadpan humour can make for a very inconsistent viewing experience, especially if you aren’t sure what to expect going in.
Plot Summary: An endearing dachshund, nicknamed, Wiener-Dog, finds itself shuffled from one oddball owner to the next, with each owner’s radically dysfunctional life being, in some way, impacted by the small canine…
Winning the Best Film Award at the 2017 Milan LongTake Interactive Film Festival, a festival where the films in competition are selected from titles yet unreleased in Italian cinemas, with the winner being chosen by the number of people attending each screening. Wiener-Dog is certainly not a film for everyone as the stories within are actually much dreary in tone than many would expect given the title and/or poster. Moreover, for those going in expecting four straight-forward, humourous narratives, Wiener-Dog frequently takes an unusual approach with its stories, with much of the writing being awkward and clunky and each story largely differing in terms of structure. And even though I adore the idea of using a dog as a framing device for an anthology, Wiener-Dog rarely makes use of its central dachshund, nor do any of the stories fully delve into the emotional arcs of their characters even when some of their self-examining journeys are particularly interesting.
Throughout all of the stories, one element that never fails to impress, however, is the cast. From a struggling family to a despondent screenwriter-turned-film school lecturer, every member of the cast brings their all in Wiener-Dog. And although many of the characters don’t receive as much development as they probably should, they do all feel very distinct from one another. For example, in the first story, Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts portray Danny and Dina, an uptight, miserable couple whose young son, Remi, is recovering from cancer. Danny and Dina soon decide to get their son a dog in an attempt to cheer him up, though, this only ends up causing the family more problems. In the next story, Dawn, a veterinarian’s assistant, hopes the dachshund will help her melt the heart of Brandon, whom she knew in school as a notorious bully. The third story introduces us to Dave Schmerz, portrayed by Danny DeVito, a has-been screenwriter now teaching at a film school where the students despise him. The fourth and final story concentrates on a character only ever referred to as Nana, portrayed by Ellen Burstyn, a blind, embittered woman suffering from cancer, who is being visited by her granddaughter, Zoe, and her outrageous abstract artist boyfriend, Fantasy.
For the majority of the runtime, the cinematography by Edward Lachman stands as a model of subtle and elegant compositional skill strained by what are fairly uninteresting locations. And whilst the first two stories have a written transition between them, the latter two stories do not, and instead, we just cut to the dachshund being in a new home, with a new owner, with no explanation given, which is rather jarring. That being said, Wiener-Dog does feature an intermission of sorts halfway through, which becomes a short story in itself; a montage of the dachshund walking through a number of colourful locations brought to life via some less-than-stellar green screen. This amusing sequence somewhat feels inspired by Let’s All Go to the Lobby, officially known as Technicolor Refreshment Trailer No. 1, a 1957 animated musical advertisement that played in American cinemas during intermissions. In which, animated characters that resemble various food items urge the audience to purchase snacks.
The original score by Nathan Larson and James Lavino is serviceable during the few scenes when it’s actually used. As for most of the film, Wiener-Dog chooses to employ excerpts from the classic orchestral piece, Clair de Lune, L. 32, which consistently seems out of place. The previously mentioned intermission is also set to an original tune titled: The Ballad of the Wiener-Dog, which is admittedly quite imaginative despite, once again, seeming misplaced.
With an anthology, some segments are always going to be superior to others. In Wiener-Dog‘s case, it’s the third story that is the best of the bunch, mainly because of DeVito’s terrific world-beaten performance. With that said, the third story does have a shortcoming that plagues many of the segments, that being its ending, which feels rushed and premature. The ending of the final story is also likely to leave many audience members with a bitter taste in their mouths as the ending is unnecessarily mean-spirited, concluding the anthology on a dour note.
In summary, similar to the rest of Todd Solondz’s filmography, Wiener-Dog is a black comedy with much of the comedy removed, leaving just black; a dense residue of callousness as the film rarely dwells on its light-hearted gags or charming moments. Nevertheless, Wiener-Dog is enjoyable in parts, and it’s evident that Solondz had a specific vision for the project when crafting it. Perhaps the film is just a little too bleak for its own good. Rating: 4/10.