★★★ ½
Opening Friday, July 15, 2016

Wiener-Dog is a funny, if modest, installment in director Todd Solondz’s series of meditations on the austere cruelty of the American middle-class family. The film consists of several episodes linked by the eponymous creature, a forlorn dachshund shuffled from one tenuous situation to the next.

First, the dog lives with a shy little boy and his self-involved parents, then with an awkward and lonely veterinary assistant, followed by a bitter screenwriting teacher and an elderly woman dying of cancer. The dog’s goofy, kind-of-blank but also kind-of-sad expression is the perfect visual counterpoint to its human keepers’ parade of pathos. When Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) plays his flute to the crated dog, you sense that the kid is the more trapped of the two.

In Wiener-Dog, Solondz does what he does best: pulling great performances out of an ensemble cast (including Danny DeVito, Greta Gerwig, Zosia Mamet, and Julie Delpy) to tell interwoven micro-stories that vacillate between abjection and absurdity. DeVito is one of the highlights of the film, playing curmudgeonly film teacher Dave Schmerz with all of his salty vulnerability.

As Zoe, Mamet shows real comic chops as the prodigal granddaughter of a wealthy elderly cancer patient (Ellen Burstyn). Zoe arrives at her Nana’s house with her African-American conceptual-artist boyfriend, Fantasy (played brilliantly by Michael Shaw), to ask for ten thousand dollars to fund his career. “I’m interested in mortality,” Fantasy flatly declares to the dying Nana.

What lifts Wiener-Dog above mere parody are its surreal little interludes. In one episode, Dawn Wiener (a character returning from Welcome to the Dollhouse, now played by Gerwig) ends up on a long cross-country trip with a boy who bullied her in high school (Kieran Culkin), during which they pick up a down-and-out band of mariachis. Making small talk, Dawn asks if they like America better than Mexico. One of the mariachis replies, “In America, so lonely and sad and depressing.” “Like a big fat elephant drowning in a sea of despair,” adds another.

The heightened ridiculousness of the dialogue underscores the essential sadness of the scene—two loners traveling with three immigrants and a dog across a great expanse of strip malls. For the mariachis, home is a place to which they can’t return, but for the loners, this is home, and it offers little comfort. The encounter crystallizes the emotional core of so much of Solondz’s work: white middle-class life, with its supposed comforts, offers no sense of belonging, even in the places where it lives.

Because of the relatively unambitious way Wiener-Dog is strung together, it does not reach the heights of Solondz’s best, including Happiness and Life During Wartime—films premised on networks of narratives that interlock in surprising ways. But what Wiener-Dog lacks in narrative complexity, it makes up for in unexpected weirdness and dry, merciless humor.