Published Jul 07, 2016Welcome to the Dollhouse, American filmmaker Todd Solondz's second feature film, was an unlikely smash when it was released back in 1996, gaining critical acclaim from Roger Ebert and winning the Grand Jury Prize at that year's Sundance Film Festival, catapulting the careers of lead Heather Matarazzo and, of course, Solondz himself.
Twenty years later, Dawn Wiener and Brandon McCarthy are back, but Solondz's latest film, Wiener-Dog, isn't the traditional sequel fans of Dollhouse and its middle-school malaise were probably expecting.
Split up into four digestible chunks, Wiener-Dog follows a lowly dachshund as its passes from owner to owner, documenting their lives and the dog's impact on them. It's a simple device that creates ample space for Solondz to explore the dark side of the society he lives in and his life as a director thus far. It also gives him a chance to make fun of other members of indie cinema's elite — Richard Linklater's Boyhood and Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight both have scenes parodied here that highlight their self-seriousness.
In the first act, we see the emptiness of atheism and a life built around aesthetic beauty when the dog is adopted by a family that seems to have it all, but can't keep the dachshund out of harm's way. (Julie Delpy, as the mother of a son in remission who adopts the pet, delivers one of the funniest scenes in the film, explaining that the seemingly healthy granola bars her son eats everyday are actually toxic after the wiener-dog has a few bites and shits blood everywhere.)
Next, in one of the more satisfying segments for long-time Solondz fans, Dawn (this time played by indie favourite Greta Gerwig), now a vet tech, steals the dog from the hospital and goes on the run with Welcome to the Dollhouse's Brandon (played by Kieran Culkin) after accidentally bumping into him at a gas station.
Following that, Danny DeVito plays a NYC screenwriter making ends meet as a film professor at a local college, and seems to unearth Solondz's own uneasiness about his current digs (in real life, he's an adjunct professor at the New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, but the actual lesson here for moviemakers, it seems, is to drop out).
Finally, Ellen Burstyn and Zosia Mamet star in a story about regret, as the former nears the end of her life and the latter rues her inability to say no to her boyfriend, a hulking mixed-media artist named Fantasy who combines taxidermy with robotics (but is sensitive about being called a Damien Hirst derivative).
And, spoiler alert, because this is Solondz we're dealing with, it's pretty obvious that the wiener-dog is going to die a horrible death and become part of some weird artistic experiment. But it's also the perfect visual metaphor for the film itself, a kind of Franken-indie flick that bridges Solondz's first love for short films with his latter successes and gently mocks the high art crowd that's come to love him.
Wiener-Dog isn't the sequel fans were waiting for, but by breaking with tradition, it actually says a whole lot more.