Not knowing much about the movie I was going to see, I kind of assumed I was in for something light and fun, possibly even a little heartwarming considering the title, Wiener-Dog. The synopsis was somewhat vague and the director’s name, Todd Solondz, didn’t register with me. As I left the theater afterwards, I kept thinking how the movie reminded me of an earlier film, Happiness. Lo and behold, one of my favorite awkwardly dry films filled with literal WTF moments was directed by none other than Todd Solondz. It was the strange mind behind films like Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse that took us on the wonderfully strange albeit very human journey that is Weiner-Dog.
Much like Happiness, the title can be deceiving. The hot dog shaped pound puppy who plays the film’s namesake is definitely not the focus of the story and rather the device used to connect 4 seemingly different stories. I say seemingly because despite what looks like random tales, there is an underlying connection between the 4 vignettes. The opening exposes us to a family coming out of a major medical crisis, looking for some form of normalcy. The father’s attempt at this is to adopt our plot driving device, Wiener-Dog. The only person who genuinely connects with anyone is the son, the survivor of the medical crisis, he seems to be the only family member with a love and respect for life. After an explosive reaction to some granola, the pup gets an early AM vet visit that results in her having to be euthanized. The resulting conversation between mom and son about this is dark and humorous like all of their conversations, providing the viewer with a moment of “What is she saying??”
Luckily our pooch is saved from the process by a heroic nurse who steals her away and calls her Doody. Just as awkward, dry, and darkly comedic as our previous family, the nurse embarks on a spur of the moment journey with a high school friend after a chance encounter in the local quick stop. This half of the movie, we are seeing the effect that Wiener-Dog has on the lives of the people she encounters. While it isn’t life changing, the dog’s presence at this point in the movie has served the characters as a muse, inspiring them to want more or do more. But as we transition to the second half of the film with an adorable intermission that sees the tail wagger traveling across many lands, we see that she begins to take on a different role.
In the second half, the humans she is encountering are older and at different stages in their life. We are also given no explanation as to how she winds up with her newest owner, a cranky professor at an elite New York film school played by Danny DeVito. At this point, she is referred to as “my dog.” She fades more into the background as we focus on a man struggling with the compromises he’s made in hopes of success only to still find himself in the same position, recounting past decisions with negativity and regret. After being used in a drastic attempt to stick it to the film school that he thinks undervalues him, our short and stubby puppy finds herself, again we aren’t given the how or why, with an older woman, Ellen Burstyn, and her caretaker.
Being affectionately referred to as Cancer by the sweet old Nana, we are now at a stage in life where we find a woman on death’s door and dealing with broken family connection. After her granddaughter visits under the mask of keeping touch, we later find out nana knows what is up and calls her on in the thinly veiled attempt to borrow more money, there is a moment in her abruptness that we see her feeling empathy for the granddaughter and her lonely situation in a loveless relationship. This forces her to reflect on her own life as she sees many different young versions of herself all representing who she could’ve been had she made slightly different choices.
Overall the movie is a little slow and dry but the spurts of dark humor more than make up for it. This is a clever script that uses these four very different experiences to give us a glimpse at the average life cycle. A young boy’s attempt to embrace the freedom of childhood takes us to a young twentysomething struggling to find more as she loses her attachment to her surroundings and traditional paths. To me, the intermission represented that moment in midlife where you start to feel good about who you are and where you are going. Then you are hit with the cranky pants middle aged man, inhibited by nothing more than his own regrets, until we finally come to the point where we see others going through similar situations and can see ourselves and feel for them in the most humanist of ways as we reflect upon the choices we’ve made and where they led us.
This film was surprisingly smart and much more than 4 random stories held together by a traveling dog. It is a look in to the basic human experience. The dog is more than just a member of the background, she is a muse and eventually a confidant, who as we grow is no longer needed in the same way as when we are younger. The friend you laugh and stay up all night with in middle school only to grow up and have the connection remain but the interactions fade. But no matter how much it fades, the connection is still important, because we are all connected and it’s those interactions and relationships that will shape us in the end. This was weird and awkward in the most amazing of ways and if you’re looking for a realistic story that will give you some laughs while truly exposing just how human and fragile we are, this movie is for you.