Of the many sadsacks in Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog, the director reserves the saddest of all for his creative surrogate, a failed screenwriter turned vastly unpopular film school professor. With precisely one woeful credit to his name — the poster for which is drawn in caricature style of an ’80s sex comedy — Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito) keeps getting the runaround from his agent, who ignores his emails and always seems to be hopping from one conference call to the next. Dave wanted his latest script to get into his childhood and all the pain, memories, and dreams associated with it, but in a conversation with an administrator, he confesses that he also wanted people to like it. “I wanted it to sell,” he says. “so I threw in mixed-up identities. I threw in sex jokes. The mafia. A little shtick. Everybody loves a little shtick.”
Twenty years after Welcome to the Dollhouse put him on the map, Solondz is sending a message through Dave Schmerz: He doesn’t know what people like. There are no buyers for the personal art he’s trying to sell. And he’s constitutionally incapable of providing the “little schtick” that everybody loves. His work have evolved in certain respects over time — and at least he has more credits than Schmerz — but he’s still the same chronicler of the awkward and unloved that he’s always been. The only difference is that he’s older now and worries about mortality have crept into his conscience. His philosophy is slapped onto Wiener-Dog like a bleak bumper sticker: “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”
Always one of the indie world’s most self-reflexive auteurs, Solondz frequently experiments in form and deconstructs his earlier work — leftovers, artfully reimagined. Wiener-Dog‘s quartet of interconnected stories echoes the structural gamesmanship of 2001’s Storytelling and 2004’s Palindromes, but it’s more explicitly a companion piece to Dollhouse, just as 2009’s Life During Wartime was a semi-sequel to his 1998 provocation Happiness. In one of the film’s four segments, Solondz connects the two movies by catching up with Dawn Wiener, the sour outcast originally played by Heather Matarazzo in the 1996 film, but it’s only the second in a progression of short stories that cover the phases of human disappointment.
Arranged in order of the protagonist’s age, from a sensitive boy with lots of questions to a dyspeptic old woman with lots of answers, Wiener-Dog cleverly uses the title pup as the placid, lovable device linking one segment to the next. In a subtle diss of Richard Linklater’s much more optimistic Boyhood, Solondz opens with the like-aged Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) stretched out on a verdant green lawn, but that idyllic image is disrupted quickly. Remi is thrilled when his father (Tracy Letts) brings the dog into their antiseptic modern home — his mother (Julie Delpy) significantly less so — but his joy quickly subsides after a series of mishaps leads to some hard life lessons. Remi learns about cruelty and death, and he learns that adults will tell pernicious lies in an effort to comfort him or dodge difficult questions.
The dog, however, survives its brief, traumatizing stint with Remi’s family and finds a new home when the now-grown Dawn (Greta Gerwig), a veterinary assistant, nurtures it back to health and bequeaths it with the unfortunate name “Doody.” Dawn reunites with Brandon (Kieran Culkin), her bully (and only friend) from junior high school, and the two embark on an impromptu road trip that builds upon Brandon’s tragic family history from Welcome to the Dollhouse. From there, Solondz moves into middle age and beyond, passing the dog on to Dave Schmerz as personal and professional failures lead him to the brink, and then to a cranky old woman (Ellen Burstyn) whose drug-addled granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) comes looking for money.
The four stories in Wiener-Dog cover characters from four different generations, but death is the common denominator. Remi’s mom euphemizes it as much as possible for her son’s benefit (“It feels good, like forgetting everything”), but even she admits that it sometimes happens for no reason at all. The other adults in the film are more capable of reckoning with it, but Solondz isn’t the type to find silver linings. To him, the end is about regret, inexplicable loss, and a Godless nihilism. The darkest, sickest, funniest joke of the whole film lingers on its cruel finality — and proves, definitively, that Solondz isn’t about start giving audiences the shtick that they love.
He will, however, give them shtick. Solondz’s visual style has evolved substantially in the years since Welcome to the Dollhouse, going from the blunt-force grime of middle-class New Jersey to Ed Lachman’s sleek compositions here and in Life During Wartime. But his perspective on the world has calcified, and the familiarity of it has become a grind. Wiener-Dog could serve as a giant metaphor for his career: He keeps getting older, but his films stay the same age.