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Sundance London 2016 Review: Wiener-Dog



Reviewer: Kat Kourbeti

Director: Todd Solondz

Stars: Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts, Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn

Certificate: tbc

Screening at Sundance London on 3rd and 4th of June

Not to be confused with the other wiener movie screening at Sundance London this year (the political documentary about New York mayoral hopeful Weiner and the sex scandal that threatened to ruin his career), Wiener-Dog is the newest from US auteur director Todd Solondz, starring Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts, Greta Gerwig, Danny De Vito, Ellen Burstyn, and the most adorable and hapless wiener-dog puppy you’ve ever seen.

Following the titular dog as she changes hands from owner to owner, we get short glimpses into the lives of the men and women who come to care for her. For the upper middle-class parents of young cancer survivor Remy (Letts and Delpy), she is a badly-thought-out idea, a mistake exacerbated by their hideous attempts to fix it. For veterinary nurse Dawn (Gerwig) she is a victim waiting to be saved, a vessel for all of Dawn’s foolhardy hope and optimism in a world full of ugliness and despair. For screenwriting lecturer Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), she is the last trace of companionship in his lonely, unsatisfied life, made all the more poignant (and hysterically funny) when he loses all hope and lets go of it all. By the time Wiener-Dog finds her way into the arms of grumpy and dispassionate Nana (Ellen Burstyn), the viewer all but loses hope too.

Through a steady stream of deadpan macabre jokes and awkward silence, Solondz lets us dive right into the mess of these people’s lives. At every turn, our expectations are subverted and challenged to the maximum degree, and genre conventions are flipped on their head. You thought this was going to be a hopeful, sentimental movie about an adorable puppy teaching people how to love and be better people? Guess again – this ain’t Marley and Me. It’s almost as if Solondz is visibly taunting us with each segment of the film (for they are segments, joined only loosely by the presence of the dog – which in some cases goes unexplained), never delivering on the catharsis audiences have learned to expect from Sundance movies.

The first pair of stories is mostly character-driven, while incidentally criticising yuppies who can’t figure out how to raise a child (or keep a pet)–what might be an emerging pattern in this year’s festival–but the second half of the film borders on meta-comedy, spoofing the film industry through Dave Schmerz’s slow descent into madness, before turning into a rather overt ridiculing of the modern art scene in the last part of the film.

There is a hilarious intermission separating the two pairs of stories, in which an over-sized Wiener-Dog waddles through various American terrains to the tune of an original song titled “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog”. Adding on to the absurdity of the individual stories, the intermission weakly connects the stories of Dawn and Dave by implying the dog has travelled across the country; though how or why, we never get to find out.

At one point things get horribly gross and macabre – but I can’t even warn you about it, because to do that would defeat the purpose of the film entirely. What I can say is be prepared to be challenged and shocked, but also to be underwhelmed. Wiener-Dog never pretends to be other movies; if anything, it takes the movies it’s supposed to emulate and flips them the bird. Somehow, that’s oddly comforting.

Ultimately, it is a weird little movie with a lot of (rather disjointed) things to say, which serves as a great introduction to Solondz’s subversive genre-bending and deeply unsettling sense of humour.

Kat is a film critic and speculative fiction writer based in London. She is a Hugo Award-nominated Podcast Editor at Strange Horizons magazine, and contrary to what her accent might suggest, is not from North America. You can follow her on Twitter and Letterboxd @darthjuno.

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