In Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, Heather Matarazzo created an indelible character as determined, strange, putupon mid-teen Dawn Wiener … but the actress plainly hasn’t wanted to become Solondz’ Jean-Pierre Leaud, and turned down the offer to reprise the role in Palindromes, prompting Solondz to an Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus/I’m Not There tactic of casting a bunch of different people as avatars of Dawn. Considering that Matarazzo was willing to take part in the single most demeaning-for-an-actress scene of the 21st century – hung upside-down naked and scythed in Hostel 2 – we have to assume that her feelings on the matter run deep. Here, in the second of four stories linked not by Dawn but by her semi-namesake Wiener-Dog (the cruel nickname hung on her as a kid), Greta Gerwig takes on the role, which suggests a sort of happy ending in that growing up to look like Greta Gerwig must count as a victory of sorts – though she does a variety of tics and mannerisms to suggest how awkward the character still is.
A bit of throwaway dialogue suggests that these might be four alternate lives (and one definite death) for the dog, though there seems to be a link between the first two segments … after which we get a funny intermission (with a western-style song and a montage of a digitally-enlarged dog roaming through America) and two seemingly unconnected tales featuring more extreme uses of the dog than in the more credible, nuanced first half. As ever, Solondz is good on ordinary cruelty and uncomfortable cross-purposes talk. The first anecdote is the strongest, like a well-turned short story, with cancer-surviving kid Remi (Keaton Cooke) fiercely and impractically devoted to the pooch given him by stern Dad (Tracy Letts) against the wishes of weary, wary mother (Julie Delpy). When fed a nutri-bar, the dog has diarrhoea and mars their minimalist home, whereupon it’s off to the vet to be putr down and the mother has a strange soliloquy trying to justify the decision to the child. I’ve seen comments that some critics dislike Cooke’s performance so much it mars the film, but I think he’s spot-on – like Dawn in Dollhouse, he’s not that likeable and his fixation on the dog is creepier than touching. His parents are without a doubt devoted but also wrong-headed. A single shot suggests Solondz jabbing at Richard Linklater by having Remi splay on the ground like the Boyhood poster.
Wiener-Dog is saved from the needle and renamed Doody (for Howdy-Doody, though everyone’s first association is ‘shit’) by Dawn, who is buying dogfood when she’s hailed with her old nickname by Brandon (Kieran Culkin, replacing Brendon Sexton III) and we get a glimpse of the grown-ups these kids have become. Brandon takes Dawn and the dog on a road trip to tell his down’s syndrome brother (Connor Long) about their father’s death. The dog is left with the brother and his affectionate but perhaps agoraphobic wife (Bridget Brown), which would seem a happy ending … only Dawn and Brendan are still adrift and we sense Solondz might plan to get back to them one day.
The after-the-intermission stories are more acid, caricatured and cynical. The dog’s next owner is Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito, shot to seem even shorter than he is), a grumpy screenwriter trading on long-ago credits as he teaches entitled twits in film school and gets the phone runaround from his agents. It has some of the industry insider’s mid-life crisis whinging of the unattractive likes of Paul Mazursky’s The Pickle or Blake Edwards’ Skin Deep, which seem very like the sort of schtick movies Schmerz made (his credits include Apricots and Celebrity Schmelebrity – nods to Woody Allen, whose Stardust Memories is among the best of the cycle). If Solondz thinks Schmerz’s cinema is ridiculous, he has even less time for film students who can’t name a single film, want to make a superhero short (is it a dig that he has this idiot suggest Green Lantern is a Marvel character?) or have ideas about gender theory but no story hook. Dissed by a guest lecturer director (Kett Turton), Schmerz uses the dog in a perhaps-appalling way to get his own back – though the point of this story is that it lacks a punchline, which no Schmerz movie would. It’s too broad, but DeVito is good and a few tiny scenes work perfectly – when a doctor tells him to exercise and lose weight, Schmerz can’t even summon the enthusiasm to lie and just bleats ‘I can’t’.
The last story is going to be the controversial one, with grumpy old Nana (Ellen Burstyn) naming the dog Cancer and visited by edgy, fragile Zoe (Zosia Mamet) who obviously wants money yet again – this time to support her ridiculous, short-fused artist boyfriend Fantasy (Michael James Shaw) in creating a disturbing exhibition of roboticised dead pets. Burstyn and Mamet are excellent in an acting showpiece face-off, with Solondz’s script here implying a whole family history without giving specifics, but they are embedded in a piece which drifts into whimsy (with Melo Ludwig as angelic pre-raphaelite incarnations of the better lives Nana could have had) and shock-tactic violence-to-animals that I suspect will be profoundly upsetting to dog-lovers without being especially meaningful. This episode does have a punchline, but few will laugh.
Overall, this commands attention – Solondz is a necessary filmmaker – but it takes the usual anthology mix of great and terrible to extremes in that even within each of the stories there are grace notes, powerful scenes, dud jokes and crass lapses. Ultimately, rather sour.