Todd Solondz gives Boyhood a run for its money.
RATING — 5 / 5
Why did director Todd Solondz choose to place a road trip style intermission in the middle of his almost ninety minute long feature, Wiener-Dog? It really doesn’t serve the function of an intermission — which is to give the audience time to catch their collective breath, relax, run to the bathroom and let the previous runtime sink in. It also doesn’t serve as a thematic break into more heavy or lighter territory, as the whole movie operates on the same pitch throughout. We see a dog — the Wiener dog of the title — walk across multiple landscapes, such as mountains, snow, cities, etc, all the while being advised to head to the snack bar. As the creative writing professor — who had a thing for young, petite women — from Solondz’ Storytelling would say, “Is this a joke of some sort?”
As with the entirety of Solondz’ catalogue, Wiener-Dog is an uncompromisingly uncomfortable affair. Four vignettes follow four different owners in the life of the wiener dog, showing glimpses into their existence and giving us implications towards their future. And it won’t always be bright. In the beginning, there is a puppy mill, from which the dog is taken from. We soon park in a lot in front of a mini mall where a pet store conducts its business. The dog is placed in a glass window like box cage, seated calmly and looking around curiously. I couldn’t help but feel a smirk coming on, along with a sense of dread. You see, the mosaic background of suburbia, littered with mini malls, fast food joints and other conveniences, recurs in this film in an all too depressing and subtle manner. Well, as subtle as a giant branded logo on a pole, seen from a mile or so away, can be.
This setting is contrasted with the behavior and interactions of our owners. Pathetic, lowly, naive, longing and regretful owners. And I say “owners” as, by what I gather, we are the dog. From the film’s start to its finish, these people run the gambit from pre-teen to twenty something to middle aged to elderly, and in that order. I didn’t realize this initially, but Solondz is perpetrating his own Boyhood on us, only bigger and at times more confined. Four groups of people to explore, only ninety minutes to cover them. Well, 1/4th of ninety minutes each, anyways. I dare not venture to suggest that this film is some kind of challenge to Richard Linklater who, I felt, made a wonderful movie. I do, however, relish in pointing out these comparisons. More than Linklater’s wide eyed development into maturity, Solondz is after human existence itself. And, really, isn’t he perfect for the job?
I’m reminded of Al Brooks’ Defending Your Life and the cleverly satirical attempts of the go between almost afterlife to mimic modern Earth with, yes, mini malls. Mini malls and highways. Convenience. There is something silly about all of this progress and evolution. Do we as humans progress and evolve with it? Wiener-Dog is at its most bold when tackling this very question. We see characters engage with one another so awkwardly and with much neurosis that it’s hard to grasp how we were able to make it this far as a species in the first place. Wiener-Dog is at its most stomach churningly hilarious in these moments, which just litter the film. For us in the audience — and even the friendly dog perhaps — we are able to see the upsetting nature and rampant silliness of it all. For those within the world of the movie, these moments, these decisions, represent landmarks in their lives. Beautiful landmarks they’ll look back on with some kind of honest and happy response. For better or for worse, they learn and maybe grow. Into what and how, that’s up to our imagination. And, knowing us, things could get twisted.
Wiener-Dog doesn’t pull any punches with its climatic and most final punchline, being a movie that at once is a dramatic and traumatic series of follies AND a build up of a most Monty Python-ish joke. Perhaps it goes over the top by the end, and perhaps it went over the top with its intermission, but that’s part of the sweetly dangerous charm. Solondz has a long trend of charming us with the unthinkable and unspeakable. It’s a bit refreshing to see him reach into the shadows and grab out something more Elephant Man than Jack the Ripper. Something dark, but more elegant than a pale underbelly. Well, slightly more elegant. As another character from Storytelling would say, “Your film is a hit.” You know, but without the sad aggressive sarcasm underneath.