“Wiener-Dog tells several stories featuring people who find their life inspired or changed by one particular dachshund, who seems to be spreading a certain kind of comfort and joy.” This is the description given to Wiener-Dog when it played Sundance, and while technically true, anyone familiar with Todd Solondz’s work will suspect something a bit more cynical is afoot. The film does not disappoint, presenting a pitch-black dark comedy comprised of four disparate tales about the human condition loosely connected by one displaced dachshund. This movie is not for everyone. It’s cynical and mean-spirited, and it features animal abuse, which can be particularly hard to stomach. However, I found the movie hilarious and want to talk about each of the four sections, including the ending. [Spoilers] ahead.
Chapter 1) Dysfunction and Abuse
The film opens with an extended take of our hero dachshund locked in a cage, preparing the audience for the cold, unfeeling world they’re about to witness. A father takes the dog home to help their son get over some unnamed trauma, having never actually discussed keeping a dog with his wife. It soon becomes apparent that the family is terribly dysfunctional and narcissistic, to the point where their son is neglected on a regular basis (almost as much as the dog). Eventually the boy feeds the dog too much chocolate while his parents are away, making it extremely ill. The parents then decide they must put down the wiener-dog at the vet.
In addition to dysfunction, the first section of this film is the one that really oozes with commentary on how (some) people treat their pets. Many people dislike this movie due to “excessive animal abuse,” but honestly, the abuse depicted just felt sadly real to me. A father with control issues yells at the dog when it doesn’t do what he asked. The adults of the family neglect both the dog and their own child, leaving them in danger of serious self-harm. As soon as the dog is inconvenient or sick, it is ditched or put into a hospital to be put down. The animal can’t understand what’s wrong, yet it receives the blame. Wiener-Dog is meant to depict some of the darker sides of humanity, and many people “own” pets without actually caring for them in the slightest.
Chapter 2) Loneliness and Addiction
Veterinarian nurse Dawn Wiener (played by Greta Gerwig and a returning character from Welcome to the Dollhouse) decides to smuggle our hero dachshund out of the hospital rather than putting him down. She names him Doody, and proceeds to treat him like her child. Dawn is desperately lonely, to the point where she decides to go on an impromptu trip to Ohio with a former classmate, Brandon, just because he offers her human interaction. They visit Brandon’s brother and his wife (both of whom have Down Syndrome). When Brandon tells his brother that their father is dead, his brother makes him promise that he’s no longer doing drugs, which the audience knows is a lie.
Despite the subject matter, this is the section of the movie that offers perhaps the movie’s only sliver of hope. When we first meet Dawn, she is paralyzed with loneliness and painfully awkward. The audience feels that Doody is her only friend. However, by the end of the sequence she has made a new friend in Brandon, with perhaps even a budding romance. She is even able to give up Doody to another home, for no other reason than to bring happiness to the new owners. Of course, this optimism is all undercut by Brandon’s lingering meth addiction, and his empty promises to his brother that he’s clean now.
Chapter 3) Failure
Danny Devito plays Dave Schmerz, a washed-up comedy writer of mediocre high-concept movies who teaches screenplay writing for a university. Somehow following an absurd intermission, our hero dachshund has made its way into Schmerz’s possession. Schmerz is openly mocked by his students and not at all respected by his peers. When he is fired, he turns Doody into a fake bomb, threatening to blow up the school. Fortunately it is revealed to be a fake, and Schmerz is caught and taken in.
The saddest part about the third tale is that Schmerz is painfully aware of the joke his life has become. He clutches his past accomplishments for dear life, but when challenged, he knows deep down that his life is, and largely was, a failure. Even when he can’t bear the stress anymore and turns his life over to the police, he still clings to his one and only lasting legacy, generic though it may be: “What if? Then what? What next?”
Chapter 4) Mortality
The final chapter of the film brings us to the house of an elderly woman, known only as Nana (Ellen Burstyn). Somehow Nana has acquired our hero dachshund (now called Cancer, because “it felt right”), and is visited by her granddaughter who not-so-subtly wants funding for her boyfriend’s art exhibit. Nana sees right through the ruse but gives the money anyway, because, why not? Once her granddaughter has left, Nana hallucinates many different versions of herself, each in her adolescent years, and claiming to be versions of her in which she took a different path in life. They tell her that now it’s “time to go.” Horrified, Nana wakes up to realize it’s all a dream, only to see her dachshund pet run into the street and be run-over (repeatedly) by oncoming traffic.
In my opinion, this is the most profound segment of the film. Nana’s dream reveals many different versions of herself from the past, each of which made different life decisions. The decisions vary from large (“This is you if you had decided to take that job abroad.”) to mundane (“This is you if you paid your taxes on time.”). To me, what makes this sequence so funny is the fact that all of these girls are fundamentally the same. Dress color and hairstyles differ, but the basics remain consistent. People often like to think that their choices throughout life had a profound impact on who they became. Solondz seems to be claiming that those choices don’t mean much (if anything) in the grand scheme of things. He even takes the opportunity to remind us that our choices likely don’t even affect our inevitable demise, and that death could come for anyone at anytime. In the moment, we expect the elderly Nana to meet her end, only to instead watch an uncaring universe literally run over the still-young dachshund again, and again, and again.
In the epilogue, Solondz decides to give us one last beacon of “hope.” Our hero dachshund has been turned into a “living” art exhibit, taxidermied into a moving robotic monstrosity. Perhaps this is one final reminder that even in death, a person’s essence can be transformed and bastardized. Or perhaps Solondz wants to imply that technology will allow memories or images of the dead to live on, but only in some perverted half-measure. Either way, the future only gets increasingly bleak in a nihilistic universe. Life sucks, and then you die.