Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Todd Solondz is back with WIENER-DOG, his own brand of sequel to Welcome/Dollhouse

I'm not at all sure I agree with so many critics who claim that the movies of Todd Solondz are misanthropic. The guy has a dark view of humanity, all right, and of life as it's lived by so many of us on this maybe-soon-to-be-uninhabitable earth. Yet the feeling I am left with, time and again after viewing his films, is one of sadness more than anger or hatred at our "miserable selves." (That his films are leavened with a lot of humor, black as it often is, also adds to their enjoyment level.) I'd call Solondz an angry humanist.

The filmmaker's latest outing into the land of the lousy is WIENER-DOG, which doubles as a kind of sequel to his first real indie hit, Welcome to the Dollhouse, which, among other things, put actress Heather Matarazzo on the map. But Solondz being Solondz (the filmmaker is shown at right), the film is very different from almost any sequel you'll have seen because its star, and the "link" that joins each of its segments, is an adorable little dachshund, the wiener-dog of the title. Functioning as a kind of all-purpose object upon which the humans that surround it can heap whatever nonsense they like (think maybe Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar, but -- heresy, I know -- Wiener-dog is the better movie), this little dog is something else.

Yes, we do encounter a grown-up version of Dawn Wiener (the character played in the original by Ms Matarazzo), and here she is performed by none other than the new indie queen (though now somewhat mainstream), Greta Gerwig, who becomes, as Ms Gerwig always manages to do with each new role, this character to an absolute T.

But we only spend a little time with the new Dawn, as in fact we do with all the characters that act as satellites to our Wiener-dog, who moves from owner to owner -- the first of which we is Solondz's typical suburban family ripe for rot. In this case that includes mom (Julie Delpy, below), dad (Tracy Letts) and little son (a lovely job by Keaton Nigel Cooke, above). Entitled, self-serving, lying, hypocritical and seriously deluded, mom and dad manage to just about decimate their sickly son's little dog.

From its nuclear (holocaust) family through Dawn and a traveling Mariachi Band (shown at bottom), then to a pair of young marrieds with Down Syndrome, our Wiener moves from person to person, place to place. Solondz doesn't always let us see or even learn how these folk are connected, nor does he need to. By now we've seen enough movies to know the "connection" ropes. And he is a skilled enough filmmaker to have each scene grab us with immediacy, force and often fun.

The filmmaker even provides his 90-minute movie with its own short but smart intermission, during which there's not enough time to go get popcorn but at least we hear a terrific little song during the break. And then we're back to business as our Weenie rests in the hands of a NY film school professor and would-be screenwriter (played with delightful manic perseverance but noticeably declining gusto by Danny DeVito). Solondz uses this section to make sweet and nasty fun of independent film, auteurs, education, Hollywood and more -- and for the one sublimely hilarious scene alone, in which DeVito and the school's head interview a prospective student, this movie is worth seeing.

Then our dog is whisked away to the lap of Ellen Burstyn (above), doing another of her recently fine round-ups of aging matriarchs (House of Cards, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You), on whom her granddaughter (Zosia Mamet, below) pays a call with her artist boyfriend (Michael Shaw) in tow. From each new owner, Wiener gets a new name but soldiers on, as ever. How our doggie becomes immortalized is, as they say, one for the books. But not, I think, for PETA people.

The movie is dark, ugly, sad, hugely comic and full of wonderful performances -- as you'd expect from a cast this good. Crowd-pleasing it ain't, but Mr. Solondz knows exactly what he is doing. Long may he grow angry, hold up that mirror to our foibles, and keep on filming them.

From IFC Films and Amazon Studios, Wiener-dog hit theaters last weekend in New York and L.A. and will opens here and there around the country this coming Friday, July 1. In South Florida, you can see it in Miami at the Bill Cosford Cinema and Miami Beach Cinematheque. Then on Friday, July 8, it opens in Boca Raton at the Living Room Theaters.

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