TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic David Edelstein has seen a lot of dog movies over the years. But he says few are as provocative as a "Wiener-Dog." It's the eighth feature by writer-director Todd Solondz, who's best known for his early films, "Welcome To The Dollhouse" and "Happiness." The title character is a dachshund who lives in four successive homes. The film stars Greta Gerwig, Julie Delpy, Danny DeVito and Ellen Burstyn.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Todd Solondz is a difficult filmmaker to warm up to. And some people never will. His characters inhabit an artificial, insulated world, generally, suburban New Jersey, where despair festers in private and America's social injustices are kept at bay, glimpsed only on TV screens in garishly decorated living rooms. His cruelty is cold and contained, though I can't help thinking there's a humanist alive inside him, even if it has been trampled into something unrecognizable.
I love his latest movie, "Wiener-Dog." Thanks to its cute canine mascot, it's Solondz's most outwardly ingratiating film. Still, it's best to keep in mind from the start that Solondz's world is not kind to children or pets. The movie consists of four episodes linked by a female dachshund, which has four different owners and goes by four different names, the first being Wiener-Dog.
Her caretakers appear in order of their age - a trusting little boy, a high-strung young woman, a bitter and volatile male screenwriting professor and an elderly woman whose mind has turned towards death. The first story, set in an affluent New Jersey home, is the most heavy-handed. But even Solondz's cheap shots at his characters carry the seeds of tragedy. A boy named Remi, played by Keaton Nigel Cooke, greets his new pet with delight. But his dad, played by Tracy Letts, a playwright who knows a thing or two about cruelty himself, keeps the kid and pooch apart.
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KEATON NIGEL COOKE: (As Remi) Hey, Dad, when do you think we can let Wiener-Dog out of her cage?
GROSS: (As Danny) When she's housebroken.
COOKE: (As Remi) Why do people say housebroken?
TRACY LETTS: (As Danny) Because Remy, you have to break a dog, break their will so that they'll submit to your will. It's a kind of civilizing, so they act like humans.
COOKE: (As Remi) You mean so they go to the bathroom outside instead of inside?
LETTS: (As Danny) Exactly.
COOKE: (As Remi) But when you break a will - well, what is a will exactly anyway?
LETTS: (As Danny) It's character, force of character. It's the thing that makes you, you.
EDELSTEIN: Solondz doesn't underline the idea that the dad's view of pet rearing likely extends to his view of childrearing. It's grimly implicit. You get a bad feeling when Remi finally has the opportunity to romp with Wiener-Dog. He gives the dog a treat that induces buckets of diarrhea, which compels the father to whisk the beast away in the night to be euthanized. The mom, played by Julie Delpy, says the dog had cancer and that death is a natural thing. There is, of course, nothing natural about killing a dog and lying to a child.
But Wiener-Dog lives, impulsively freed by veterinary aid Dawn Wiener, played by Greta Gerwig. That's the name of the heroine of Solondz's breakthrough film "Welcome To The Dollhouse." She's Solondz's female alter ego. And when she bumps into an old high school crush, a druggie named Brandon, played by Kieran Culkin. He calls her Wiener-Dog, which creates all kinds of confusing layers. Brandon has to inform his autistic younger brother that their alcoholic father has died. But strong human connections have been forged between Brandon and his brother and Brandon and Dawn.
Danny DeVito plays the has-been screenwriter whose students hate him and agents offer mechanically jolly and meaningless assurances. We'd like him more if he weren't the kind of catchphrase-spouting screenwriting teacher whom Solondz has defined himself against. But Wiener-Dog rouses him to action, however insane. And the story ends on a high.
Nothing can quite prepare us for the finale, though, in which Wiener-Dog's next owner, an old woman played by Ellen Burstyn, is visited by a granddaughter who needs money for her feckless artist boyfriend. The woman has renamed the dog Cancer. But her morbid fatalism gives way to something deeper and more enduring. Wiener-Dog has worked her magic again. You can hardly call the movie's ending upbeat. But for a perverse cynic like Solondz, it might be as inspiring as it gets.
Cinematographer Edward Lachman and production designer Akin McKenzie create a coolly artificial palette, settings from which nature and personality have been purged. But Solondz doesn't show the same arch contempt for materialism he did in his earlier films. It's obvious that he feels the pain of people for whom there's little possibility of transcendence, unless, of course, they get a dog.
GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we talk about what we know about Zika, the first-known mosquito-borne virus that can cross over into the placenta and the first that can be sexually transmitted. My guest will be Donald G. McNeil Jr., who covers science and health for The New York Times and has written a new book about Zika. He says if the virus is ever going to hit hard in the U.S., this summer will be its best opportunity. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for online media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We incorrectly refer to a character in the film "Wiener-Dog" as autistic. That character has Down syndrome.]