Wiener-Dog review: witty, acerbic, and strangely warm

3rd June 2016

Wiener-Dog screens as part of Sundance London 2016.
Despite what the title may suggest, Wiener-Dog is not about a dog. Not even a wiener-dog. I mean, it does feature a wiener-dog, and pretty prominently at that, but this isn’t exactly Marley & Me. Instead, it’s a witty, acerbic collection of stories musing on death and loss. All featuring a wiener-dog.
There are four stories collected here, with the titular dog a loss through-line. A young boy is given the dog, fuelling tensions between his parents and challenging their tidy existence. A vet saves the dog from being put down, taking it on a road trip with an old school friend. A down-and-out screenwriter and film studies professor uses the dog as part of an elaborate revenge plot against his ungrateful students. A misanthropic old woman cares for it as she’s visited by her granddaughter and faces up to her life.
Each segment is almost entirely disconnected, but they share a melancholic, caustic tone, and Solondz never shies away from uncomfortable material–as in an early conversation about a rapist dog named Muhammad, or a disconcertingly long tracking shot following some canine excrement.
Not for the faint-hearted or the easily offended then, but rewarding for those who don’t object. That’s not least thanks to the astonishingly deep cast, led by the likes of Greta Gerwig, Julie Delpy, Danny DeVito, Kieran Culkin, and more. DeVito in particular excels as past-his-prime screenwriter Dave Schmerz, reining in his usual bombast for a more measured performance. Delpy is also irresistible–she gets the aforementioned rapist dog speech, delivered to her character’s son, and wrings every ounce of uncomfortable laughter out of it.
With four stories filling out 90 minutes, a couple of Wiener-Dog’s segments slightly outstay their welcome, and the film is stronger when it shoots for dark comedy than when it merely goes for dark. But it would be impossible to deny its intelligence, or its strange warmth–somehow finding room for sympathy even at the darkest edges of human behaviour, humanity at its best even as it’s at its worst. Plus, that dog is really, really cute.
Words by Dominic Preston

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