Anyone who has previously seen a portmanteau film and experienced the almost inevitable disappointment in spite of the involvement of an accomplished director(s) would be doing themselves a disservice by ignoring Wiener-Dog. Okay, so it's not a masterpiece but three out of the four films within the film are good. The lone hold out is at least an entertaining diversion.
This being a black comedy, I might as well begin with the bad, namely the story about a washed up and weary professor at a film school. I suppose it's ironic to write a poorly written screenplay about a professor who himself writes such screenplays and is powerless to prevent his students from doing the same. The whole segment is a bit too meta. One wonder's whether Danny DeVito bafflement as to why he is appearing in this film accounts for some of the professor's evident weariness. Always a supporting cast member, the dachshund almost disappears in this segment, only to deliver the ad hoc conclusion, one which, to be sure, is an amusing and cathartic way of disposing of a half-baked idea.
Ellen Burstyn is, as ever, excellent, hilarious as the aloof and world- weary grandmother. Apart from relationships to her granddaughter and caretaker that are sustained by monetary payments, her sole companion is her dachshund, whom she has named Cancer, a delightfully unsuitable name for a dog in an era where euphemism and smarm reigns supreme. Todd Solondz devises an ingenious way of confronting Nana with her regrets regarding how she has treated the people who were close to her throughout her life. Since the leap from director to visual artist is not great, is Solondz, in part, poking fun at himself with his caricature of a contemporary visual artist?
Not without its appeal, the trope of an uncommonly attractive woman who, on account of her hopeless awkwardness, struggles to attract weird, greasy dudes always struck me as overly sentimental, the realization of a particularly improbable fantasy. Although it touches on loss and drug addiction, this segment is neither particularly black nor comedic. The director's portrayal of a couple, both of whom have Down syndrome, is uncharacteristically sensitive. A small gesture that concludes the story leaves little doubt as to whether its positive tenor is intentional.
My favourite of the four films is the first, which is about a father who buys his son a dachshund to cheer him up, the latter having recently recovered from cancer. When put that way, it almost sounds schmaltzy. The parents lack of interest in training the dog ensures that the situation gets ugly quickly. Remi, the son, loves the dog unconditionally but his parents can't look past its behaviour, in particular its penchant for defecating in the house. While the parents' desire to be honest with their son is noble, Remi has an amusing habit of interpreting their rationalizations in the most morbid light. The Islamophobia of the mother seems timely and the director shows how her prejudice can be passed on to her son through a seemingly innocent conversation. The French folk song "Au clair de la lune" provides effective contrast or enhancement to a couple of noteworthy scenes.
I appreciate that it can be difficult to obtain funding for producing independent films but the amount of product placement in Wiener-Dog is regrettable. I expect many viewers will find the ending offensive but it does constitute a definitive end to a series of narratives that were only connected by a single element. The director achieves a memorable if not particularly adroit subversion of cinematic (and societal) conventions.
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