Wiener-Dog, Todd Solondz’s barbed and beguiling canine odyssey in four parts, is a jaundiced riff on Au Hasard Balthazar, Robert Bresson’s 1966 masterpiece about a donkey whose sad life illuminates the tragedy and the occasional sublimity of earthly existence. A writer-director known for his confrontational, harshly funny dissections of American middle-class life (Happiness, Dark Horse), Solondz is not entirely immune to the charms of the beautiful brown dachshund he’s placed front and center here.
But he never lets those charms distract him from the dog’s chief purpose, which is to bear witness to a rich and appalling spectrum of human idiocy, misery and self-absorption. She is both man’s best friend and a stark reminder that mankind is its own worst enemy.
The dachshund’s first master is a 9-year-old boy and cancer survivor named Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), who names her Wiener-Dog. Remi loves his new pet, but his miserable parents (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy) don’t exactly share his affection, especially after Wiener-Dog ingests a granola bar and relieves herself all over their attractively furnished suburban home.
A medical detour sends our four-legged heroine off on her next adventure, now in the company of a lonely veterinary assistant (Greta Gerwig) and her junkie-drifter friend (Kieran Culkin) as they head out on a road trip to Ohio. Solondz devotees will recognize both these characters from his 1995 breakthrough feature Welcome to the Dollhouse, with Gerwig playing an awkward, grown-up version of that film’s protagonist.
Solondz’s screenplay concerns itself less and less with the specifics of how Wiener-Dog passes from owner to owner and more and more with the cruelty of life’s inevitable downward spiral. After a cross-country intermission that affords the film’s sole moments of unalloyed pleasure, Wiener-Dog is the companion of Dave Schmerz, a failed Hollywood screenwriter and widely derided film-school professor played to misanthropic sad-sack perfection by Danny DeVito.
Wiener-Dog’s last and most indelible adventure involves a cranky shut-in (Ellen Burstyn), who pays little heed to either the dachshund or the sudden arrival of her talkative granddaughter (Zosia Mamet), paying one of her irregular visits to ask for money.
The final image could be Solondz’s acknowledgment of the diorama-like limitations of his own art, or it could just be his latest epitaph for all humanity: Welcome to the doghouse.