One of the consistent problems of the omnibus film, whether it's a commercial effort like the 1932 If I Had a Million or an arthouse-aimed endeavor like the many European anthologies of the 1960s where a thirty-minute episode by Fellini or Godard would stand out from four or five segments by less distinguished colleagues, is that they tend to be uneven. Inevitably there will be some episodes that outshine the others, and some that will quite simply be terrible, making the film as a whole seem like an inconsistent muddle. In some ways, the classic example is the 1983 feature-length Twilight Zone, which expects the viewer to endure two awful episodes at the beginning before redeeming the effort with the final two. It would not be unreasonable to feel cheated — like you've paid full price for half of a movie.
Writer-director Todd Solondz has come up with his own solution to the problem in his new film Wiener-Dog, a series of four stories (linked by an intermission) about a dachshund who passes from owner to owner. The episodes differ in style and tone, but they share a common feature: They're all unpleasant. Although ostensibly a comedy, Solondz has written a film that aims not for laughs but for a flash of recognition followed by contempt. His characters are, almost without exception, broken; they're neurotic or wounded, pretentious or casually cruel. In Solondz's world, no one is innocent.
In the first, deliberately banal episode, a young boy, Remi, is presented with Wiener-Dog, but his chilly, repressed parents can't handle some of the animal's unfortunate habits and confine it to a metal crate. On one level, Solondz seems to be satirizing some kind of anal-retentive suburbia — Remi's self-absorbed parents speak in nonsensical platitudes — yet the story stays at the level of a family sitcom given a sudden license for crudeness. If you're not interested in long, lingering shots of the residue of a sick animal, this episode is not for you.
After leaving the first family, the animal, renamed "Doody" (have you caught on to the scatological streak yet?), has been claimed by Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig), a neurotic young woman (and the adult version of the young girl, also called Wiener Dog, of Solondz's earlier Welcome to the Dollhouse). She goes on a road trip with a sullen, drug-addicted former friend, Brandon (Kieran Culkin). After a listless, dull start, this episode becomes unnecessarily offensive when they visit Brandon's brother and sister-in-law, both with Down syndrome. In one scene, Dawn presses the other woman to take a walk with her, so engrossed in her own babble about her (mostly imaginary) relationship with Brandon that she doesn't even notice her companion's discomfort. It's meant to be a joke — although it's not clear who the target is. Dawn and Brandon use the other couple as sounding boards for their own narcissism, but Solondz reduces them to props.
The third story (after a brief musical intermission) involves Danny DeVito as a frustrated screenwriter reduced to teaching film students as his career unravels. The final episode offers Ellen Burstyn as an old woman receiving a visit from her ditzy granddaughter.
Burstyn gives the film the closest thing it has to a sense of humanity, albeit a bitter, rueful one (she has renamed the dachshund Cancer), but she's not given much to do before the film leaps straight into an intentionally ugly climax (and a witless punchline of a coda).
What on earth is this rambling assembly of bile and scorn supposed to mean? There are moments when the film appears to be little more than a series of well-refined personal grudges, but against whom? Film students? Art snobs? Woody Allen? (The DeVito character has one long-ago hit behind him, the poster of which is patterned after Allen's Bananas). Video games? Mumblecore? Richard Linklater? (The first episode has Linklater regular Julie Delpy and a brief nod to Boyhood.)
Like the old joke about the equal-opportunity bigot, Solondz hates everything. Wiener-Dog looks like a comedy, but what some might excuse as the director's curmudgeonly manner is more often just plain mean-spiritedness. Peel away the weak jokes and sad lives and you find a work of pure misanthropy.