What If This Is Art? What Then?
Dogs must be the most straightforward animals on Earth. They like you or they don’t, mostly if they have trained to be suspicious of strangers or if they have been mistreated in the past. If you feed them, pat them, they love you for it. Should one become your dog, this love will be unconditional, till death do you part. It’s easy to see what appealed to Todd Solondz in this straightforwardness, a matter-of-fact approach to human interaction blending well with his absurdist point of view. For dogs, we human must be inscrutable ciphers, forever engaged in weird activities, when a plate a food, a ray of sun, a twig or a good belly rub are so utterly satisfying.
Wiever Dog tells the tale of said dog, rescued from a shelter by the father of a child having survived a grave illness, then rescued again, donated, lost and found. She’s the glue between typical Solondz vignettes, heralding weird characters and broken lives. It’s very funny at times; during the rest of the movie it kinda lays there, waiting for the next conundrum to arise, only to be solved by a punchline or a manifestation of fate. This is, in other words, not great storytelling, to use the title of a previous Solondz movie.
The best part is the beginning, with the suburban family composed of a decent child actor, John Lithgow (whom one never gets tired praising) and Julie Delpy as the sweetest monster of a mother there ever was. She has a line for the ages when she tells a bedtime story to her son, about a dog she had when she was his age, or most probably invented: “Croissant was raped by a stray dog called Mohammed”. This must be the most offensive thing one heard this year. A bit later, she deflects a conversation about life and death by airily answering “We don”t believe in God”. All she wants is Wiener Dog to be put on because she ate “poison Granola” and had diarrhea all over the house.
Which brings us to what constitutes, for this reviewer at least, the problem of Solondz’s movies. They would made great short stories, would be hilarious on stage, captivating as a radio programme or podcast. But the man has chosen the camera as a medium, and he has no clue how to use it. Mercifully sparse on dog reaction shots (he’s not interested one bit in the dog per se, by the way) the movie is 70% static medium shots of people talking, 15% expository shots and only for the 10% remaining percent does the camera move and it’s meant to convey irony. This time, it’s a long, pensive travelling on dog diarrhea. This was certainly missing from the cinematographic canon and in a way it’s surprising John Waters didn’t do it first. But you kinda can’t escape thinking you’re looking at s***, which shouldn’t be a movie maker’s intention.
The film unravels from there. Three depressed Mexican hitchikers in wife-beaters sing “Celebraçion y tragedia” while some doofus gets high in a motel bathroom; he later has a circular conversation about Dad’s death with a brother having Down’s syndrom. An intermission features the dog travelling from Wild West to White House backgrounds, set on The Ballad of Wiener Dog. Danny de Vito pops up as a failed screenwriter insisting on teaching the “What if? Then what?” golden rule to jaded hispters. Ellen Burstyn appears for an ominous finale, starting with a visit from Fantasy, a performance artist and ending on the annoucement of her impending death. She has rechristened the dog Cancer and she asks Fantasy to “take Cancer outside”. At this rather terminal stage, one doesn’t quite know what or why one’s watching, or laughing about, anymore. Viewing avoidable.