This dog’s life

With his latest film, Wiener- Dog, filmmaker Todd Solondz once again revels in the dysfunctions, malfunctions and other foibles of the human condition set in contemporary suburbia. But even when things appear bucolic and “normal” on the surface, Solondz is readying to go for the jugular. Come prepared.

The title character in Wiener-Dog is a female dachshund, but not surprisingly Solondz is more interested in her succession of owners. The dog is ever-present, but not always prominent.

Wiener-Dog’s first owner is Remi (talented newcomer Keaton Nigel Cooke), a young boy recovering from a bout with cancer. He adores Wiener-Dog, but the same sentiment doesn’t apply to his parents, portrayed by Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts as casually, if unintentionally, monstrous.

The pooch’s next owner is Dawn Wiener, the character introduced in Solondz’s 1995 breakthrough Welcome to the Dollhouse. Heather Matarazzo (who made her screen debut as Dawn) reportedly turned down reprising the role, which has been assumed – seamlessly – by Greta Gerwig (who’s terrific). Dawn is also reunited with her former tormenter Brandon (Kieran Culkin, equally seamless replacing Brendan Sexton III). This actually is the sweetest segment of the film, especially for those who remember Dollhouse.

At this point, Solondz delivers one of the film’s very best jokes – an intermission (in an 88-minute movie!), replete with a very catchy tune called “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog.”

Next stop for Wiener-Dog is New York City and her owner is now Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a has-been screenwriter/actor in a serious slump. We all know DeVito to be a talented farceur, yet he brings great pathos to the role.

Finally, Weiner-Dog ends up with Nana (Ellen Burstyn), a widow whose bitter facade masks a tender heart. Burstyn, truly an American treasure and always welcome in any movie (good or bad), makes it look easy – and that includes chugging down a bottle of Kaopectate.

On the surface, Weiner-Dog seems one of Solondz’s more sentimental works, but don’t be fooled. He does evince compassion for some of these troubled characters, and Ed Lachman’s customarily first-rate cinematography is awash in the warm and sunny, but Solondz is only winding up for a final gut-punch – one that won’t be revealed here but caused quite a stir at its Sundance premiere.

Wiener-Dog opens Friday !