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.