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Review: ‘Wiener-dog’ skewers humankind’s many failings

  • COURTESY IFC FILMS

    “Wiener-Dog” is a series of comedic vignettes by filmmaker Todd Solondz. The film stars Danny DeVito.

“Wiener-Dog”

Rated R (1:30)

Opens today at Kahala 8

Some filmmakers range across genres and styles, reinventing themselves from one project to the next. Todd Solondz is the other kind. At this point in their careers, we don’t expect documentary-style naturalism from Wes Anderson, bittersweet romance from Quentin Tarantino or violent action from Whit Stillman. And we don’t turn to Solondz for warm affirmations of human decency.

Across eight features in 27 years, the awfulness of our species — in particular its North American, suburban varieties — has served Solondz as both premise and punch line. You can take his misanthropy or leave it. You can also vacillate (as I have preferred to do) according to the swings of your own mood or the particulars of story and performance, but the axioms of his universe are remarkably consistent. Selfishness trumps empathy. Intimacy is the surest route to humiliation. Ambition is the handmaiden of failure. Cruelty is pervasive, innocence is toxic and the most likable people are the ones who are most honest in their hatefulness.

“Wiener-Dog” dramatizes these assumptions in the inscrutable presence of a nonhuman observer, a dachshund who goes by a few different names and endures the company of a variety of masters. A New Jersey couple (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy) brings the dog home to provide companionship for their sickly son (Keaton Nigel Cooke). This family — the blustery dad; the passive-aggressive mom; the wide-eyed, question-asking child — are the most canonically Solondzian figures in the movie, its ground zero of upper-middle-class entitlement.

But their presence, like nearly everyone else’s, is brief. This is an anthology of dark, deadpan comic vignettes, punctuated by an amusing fake intermission and sealed with a grim sight gag. Wiener-Dog (who is also called Doody and Cancer) is spayed and nearly euthanized, strapped with explosives and subjected to a cross-country car trip with an aimless young not-quite-couple (Greta Gerwig and Kieran Culkin), one of whom seems to be Dawn Wiener herself, the heroine of Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and as such an almost mythical figure in his imaginative world.

Dawn Wiener used to have brown hair and used to be dead, and Wiener-Dog was her nickname in middle school back in the ’90s. In previous films — notably “Life During Wartime,” a sequel of sorts to “Happiness,” and the heroically misbegotten “Palindromes” — Solondz has messed around with conventions of story and character. He demonstrates an admirable impatience with the arcs and beats that dominate even independent-minded screenwriting, and shows a sometimes frustrating, sometimes bracing indifference to psychological continuity.

“Wiener-Dog” is held together by its canine title character, whose animal dignity provides silent commentary on human folly. This conceit is clearly borrowed from Robert Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar,” in which a donkey suffers for the sins of a series of owners. That Solondz’s pet lacks the noble charisma of Bresson’s beast of burden is part of the point. Bresson was interested in illuminating the tragic fallenness of the human world. Solondz exposes its smallness to the harsh glare of satire.

Some of it is pretty funny, partly because of the performers Solondz has assembled. Danny DeVito is a bitter screenwriter who halfheartedly teaches college students between desperate calls to his agent. Ellen Burstyn is a bitter old woman whose granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) arrives for a visit with her artist boyfriend (Michael Shaw). Her chapter of “Wiener-Dog” has a haunting emotional resonance, as the old woman hallucinates a squad of identical red-haired children who embody her regrets and lost chances.

But much of the rest is not only sour, which is only to be expected, but also tired, which is disappointing. Solondz’s eye for the petty hypocrisies and delusions of American life has lost some of its sharpness, and he flails at flabby targets — avant-garde art, campus “political correctness” — in ways that sometimes carry an ugly whiff of racial and sexual bigotry. Even his admirers may wish that this old dog would try a new trick.

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The New York Times does not provide star ratings for movie reviews.

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