In “Wiener-Dog,” writer-director Todd Solondz follows the life of a Dachshund and depicts the dysfunction, stupidity and cruelty of the humans in her life. The bleakly comic film is an original but uneven slice of American loserhood.
Solondz, whose “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness” were mordantly funny and disturbing stories about humans hurting each other, again combines harshness and humanity, setting the movie in a suburbia of sad sacks, wounded innocents and parents who emotionally maim their children.
He has described “Wiener-Dog” as a combination of “Benji” and “Au Hasard Balthazar,” Robert Bresson’s tale of a donkey that suffers from the behavior of the people it encounters.
The story has four vignettes connected by the Dachshund.
Wiener-Dog (the first and most flattering of her names) first lands in the upper-middle-class home of a boy, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a cancer survivor whose self-absorbed patents (Julie Delpy, Tracy Letts) have no idea how to care for a dog or raise a child. When a dog-unfriendly snack causes a case of canine diarrhea — which Solondz graphically presents in a long tracking shot set to Debussy’s Clair de Lune — they decide Wiener-Dog should be euthanized.
In segment two, veterinary tech Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig) — the former bullied adolescent in “Dollhouse” who was cruelly called Wiener-Dog in that film — rescues the Dachshund and takes it on a road trip with “Dollhouse” crush and tormentor Brandon (Kieran Culkan), now a druggie. In Ohio, the two visit Brandon’s brother and sister-in-law (Connor Long, Bridget Brown), who have Down syndrome. Dawn gives them the dog.
Dog-owner three is Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a failed screenwriter teaching at a college where hipster students view him as a dinosaur. Unable to achieve success with his screenplay, he takes desperate action.
The dog’s final owner is Nana (Ellen Burstyn), an ailing, angry crone whose messed-up granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) visits to ask her for money to fund the art project of her boyfriend (Michael Shaw). Facing mortality, Nana sees an apparition of her young self that represents opportunities she has blown.
The hallucinatory scene in Nana’s segment is superb, as is Delpy’s character, who tells her impressionable son inappropriate and racist stories about canine rape. When Brandon tells his distressed brother about their father’s death, it’s surprisingly moving.
Yet, the film misses nearly as often as it hits.
A scene when Dawn and Brandon pick up three Mexican mariachi musicians who complain about life in the U.S. falls flat, as does the Kaopectate bit.
The Dachshund, whose welfare initially matters deeply, becomes a gimmick. An “intermission” music video starring the dog, while amusing, feels like padding.
The cast is on Solondz’s wavelength, with Delpy and DeVito, playing the most deranged characters, especially notable.
Gerwig makes a fine Dawn Wiener, and she and Solondz make a winning case for her resurrection (after having committed suicide at the beginning of Solondz’s “Palindromes”).
Two and a half stars
Starring: Greta Gerwig, Danny DeVito, Ellen Burstyn, Julie Delpy
Written and directed by: Todd Solondz
Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes