The great critic Robert Warshaw once pegged the gangster movie as "the no to the great American yes that is stamped so large over our official culture."
Todd Solondz doesn't make gangster films, but I can't think of a better way to describe his corrosive domestic comedies -- you absolutely should see Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, Storytelling or Palindromes, but not if you need cheering up about the order of things. Solondz's territory is the suburb, all tricked out in Have-A-Nice-Day primary colors, but that's about it for American optimism. From then on it's no, no, no all the way for the benighted inhabitants of a crippled American Dream.
Solondz doesn't work in the realist mode -- the star of his new movie is a traveling dachshund, cute as a button — but Wiener-Dog cuts alarmingly close to the, uh, bone of our collective past, present and possible future.
We meet the titular dachshund circling a narrow cage at the pound, looking for comfort. She's not alone: passed carelessly from hand to hand, the repeatedly renamed pooch serves as the connective tissue between a succession of suburbanites staggering through dark days.
Solondz has often used similar scenarios to take apart media-fed pieties about sexual abuse, pornography, abortion, the Holocaust. But Wiener-Dog's foster parents seem lost and lonely, stuck in the mud of a disconnected anomie. Adopted into the clinically elegant home of a stressed couple (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts), the dog soon wreaks graphically poopy havoc with their plans to console their small son (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a recent cancer survivor. Which may or may not be why the summarily dumped pooch is renamed Doody by a vet's assistant named Dawn Wiener. Solondz loves to shift shapes: Memorably played by a teenaged Heather Matarazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse, Dawn is now realized by Greta Gerwig, a golden beauty hidden behind horrid glasses and dispiriting, unflattering threads.
All grown up in theory, Dawn is kindly but boneless and unfocused, which may explain why she eagerly joins a former classmate and tormentor (Kieran Culkin) on an iffy road trip to the heartland with Doody in tow -- until the dog is handed off to the love object's brother (Connor Long), whose Down Syndrome is rigorously unsentimentalized. From there it's a quick trot to Professor Schmerz (a very good Danny DeVito), a suffering film instructor and failed screenwriter. Schmerz means "pain" in German, so you get the picture, and soon the dog lands in the living room of an old woman played by Ellen Burstyn with a recalcitrant scowl and lank hair. Sick and embittered, she's plagued by her leeching no-hoper of a granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) and a bunch of identical girlish apparitions, a Stepford Greek chorus reminding her of the better women she might have become on roads not taken.
Existentially speaking, Solondz gives no quarter, nor does he mince words about where we're all headed. His vision of our predicament is bleakly funny and weirdly heartfelt. Ever the pessimist, he's rarely a cynic. In interview after interview the director has made it clear that his sympathy for dweebs and failures everywhere is rooted in personal experience. And in Wiener-Dog he's far more likely to make short work of the film-theory mumbo-jumbo of hipster cinema students than of their hidebound professor, still beavering away at the principles of three-act structure.
"What do we believe in?" a small boy asks his glibly atheist mother near the beginning of Wiener-Dog. "Truth, compassion, love," she answers tenderly, while doling out heedless cruelty to a putative pet. Solondz may be asking who's rescuing whom here. Is that a ray of hope speeding by these walking wounded, so preoccupied with their own miseries they fail to see that caring for others, canine or human, may be the only redemption? Or is it just a sausage dog on a skateboard?