Connection, as both a recurring narrative device and theme, broadly defines Todd Solondz’s oeuvre. Excepting Welcome to the Dollhouse and Dark Horse, each of his films over the last two decades concerns interlocking stories and separate groups of people conjoined by either a figure or force, with varying metaphorical degrees of association. Solondz’s latest, Wiener-Dog, marks the most literal evocation yet of his interest in shared sources of suffering, with a dachshund’s change of ownership signaling a turn in the film’s focus. Effectively, the dog is a device to connect four otherwise disparate tales of unfulfilled lives in search of immediate meaning, yet the filmmaker fails to generate any of the provocative traction his best work, like Happiness and Life During Wartime, manage from their peculiar collectivity of damaged souls seeking affirmation for the legitimacy of their ongoing struggles.
The film’s title refers not to the dachshund, but to Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), a nickname given to Welcome to the Dollhouse’s long-tormented heroine, who, as stated at the beginning of Palindromes, eventually committed suicide. However, Solondz mysteriously resurrects the character here, as she occupies this film’s second tale playing a veterinarian’s assistant who absconds with the dog following its previous owner’s request for euthanasia. Rather than have the dog play a vital role in determining its owners’ fates, Solondz often forgoes the dog’s presence entirely, instead focusing on some peculiar, but ultimately nascent, continuities between stories. In Dawn’s case, her chance meeting with Brandon (Kieran Culkin) leads her on a road trip from Colorado to Ohio, where she meets Brandon’s brother, Tommy (Connor Long), and sister, April (Bridget Brown), each of whom have Down syndrome. When Dawn asks what would happen if April became pregnant, Brandon says that it won’t happen because she had her “tubes tied,” and that his father “didn’t want to take any chances.”
The exchange mirrors a conversation between Dina (Julie Delpy) and her son, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), in the film’s first segment, as Dina explains why dogs have to be spayed: “Nature doesn’t care about them,” she says. That line precedes a longer story about how Dina’s childhood dog was “raped” by a much larger dog named Muhammad, whose venereal diseases caused her dog’s ultimate death. “Like AIDS?” Remi asks. Solondz positions these exchanges without interest in direct commentary or explication, establishing merely the pretense of a discourse surrounding racism, misogyny, and abuse of the mentally disabled with only a persistent ambivalence to carry them through. These nodal points are complemented by the film’s worst sequence, in which Dawn and Brandon pick up a trio of hitchhiking mariachi players, whose terse words about the disparity between Mexico and the U.S. caricature any semblance of lived pain such figures might actually possess.
Wiener-Dog’s back half nearly goes completely astray with two segments featuring unimaginative characterizations and tepid, mean-spirited scenarios. In the first, Danny DeVito stars as Dave, a tormented professor-cum-screenwriter who’s lost the respect of both his fellow faculty and students, and contemplates a desperate act of violence for revenge. In the second, Ellen Burstyn’s Nana receives a visit from her granddaughter, Zoe (Zosia Mamet), and the young woman’s boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael James Shaw), in which Zoe begs for money (“It’s not for drugs,” she assures) and laments the probability that Fantasy isn’t being faithful to her.
Solondz fails to configure the hand-offs of the dachshund in a narratively inventive manner, since it’s not explained how Dave or Nana take possession of the dog. Of course, there’s a possibility it’s not even the same dog by this point and that the initial hand-off was a red herring for meaningful comparisons that the film willfully abandons by the midway point. But if this were the case, what of it? Solondz forgoes the kind of absurd linkages that drive a film like Luis Buñuel’s The Phantom of Liberty, where each shift in character focus has a clear, inventive transition, but replaces it with nothing other than a blanket cynicism, embodied by Fantasy’s glib line that, as an artist, he’s “interested in mortality.” Based on Wiener-Dog, it’s difficult to tell whether Solondz finds such a vague statement contemptible or admirable.