Who would make an entire movie about man's best friend? Not, it turns out, misanthropic writer-director Todd Solondz ('Happiness'). Boasting a cast of exquisitely neurotic Dachshunds, 'Wiener-Dog' follows the story of one dog falling into a series of domestic traps only Solondz could imagine. Animals lovers, beware: the title character is often treated more like meat than living flesh. But en route to the harshest, most unremittingly bleak film of his career, Solondz unleashes some of his sharpest commentary yet on human mortality and regret.
Ironically scored to lullabies and Debussy's 'Clair de lune', 'Wiener-Dog' comes in four short segments (split by a jokey animation). The bookends offer the toughest stuff: a delicate nine-year-old thrills to his new pet but must learn about spaying from his uptight mother (a fearless Julie Delpy), who uses racist language and wins the award for worst parenting ever. Later on, the extraordinary Ellen Burstyn, hidden behind shades and a frown, carelessly strokes her companion animal (dubbed Cancer) until she's unexpectedly visited by a group of sweet-voiced redheaded angels who taunt her with the kinder life she could have led. It's the scariest scene of all Solondz's work to date: his worldview distilled into one nightmarish moment of supernatural comeuppance.
Why are we watching this? It's a question that comes up often with this indie stalwart, and 'Wiener-Dog', as polished as it is, won't win over doubters. But there's a deeper value here, teased out in themes that few filmmakers apart from Sweden's savage Roy Andersson would dare: the ephemerality of existence, the need to emotionally invest in these four-legged creatures. 'Wiener-Dog' is also about art itself. Danny DeVito plays a past-it screenwriter and film-school teacher who sees his legacy becoming a joke among glib students, while elsewhere, a contemporary artist (furious at comparisons to Damien Hirst) turns flesh and blood into puppets. The final canvas is the pavement itself: you know it's coming – but brace yourself.