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Wieners and losers

Solondz's Dog tops Woody Allen's Café

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In Wiener-Dog, we follow a young dachshund as he makes his way through a series of owners, each of them pitiful and tragic in their own ways. It's the eighth feature from writer and director Todd Solondz, whose previous work includes Happiness (1998), about a pedophile and his family, and Storytelling (2004), a two-part saga that explores art and exploitation in unsettling ways. Solondz's films share a universe, sort of, but with inconsistent rules. The characters from Happiness return in Life During Wartime (2009), for example, but with different casting.

Most exciting for me, Wiener-Dog sees the return of Dawn Wiener, an unfortunate seventh grader who is mercilessly targeted by both her classmates and family in one of my all-time favorite films, Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995). Dawn Wiener's in her 30s now and has been replaced by Greta Gerwig; she is borderline-unforgivably prettier than Heather Matarazzo, but she's got Dawn's mannerisms, posture and awkwardness down pat. Dawn meets Wiener-Dog at her job as a veterinarian's assistant, where she impulsively rescues the pup from euthanasia. Her old friend Brandon shows up (Kieran Culkin) and their relationship picks up where it left off some 20 years ago.

The dog's other owners include a washed-up screenwriter named Dave Schmerz (Danny Devito), a cold-hearted mother (Julie Delpy) and an elderly crank (Ellen Burstyn). The dog is a static anchor for the orbiting neuroses of his owners, as each vignette reveals hitherto unearthed and disgusting aspects of humanity.

“And this classic is called, ‘Who Let the Dogs Out?’”
  • “And this classic is called, ‘Who Let the Dogs Out?’”

Wiener-Dog, which opens this week at the Roxy, marks a triumphant return to form for Solondz, whose last several films have been uncompromising in their vision but have failed to gain much traction with audiences. Cinematographer Edward Lachman (whose previous work includes last year's Carol) gives the movie a bright, sickly commercial finish that reminds me a little of dream sequences from Nightmare on Elm Street. It's a weirdly good fit.

Solondz is a filmmaker I so summarily admire that I insist on seeing every one of his movies. The same is true of Woody Allen, whose latest, Café Society, also opens at the Roxy this week. In Café Society, Jesse Eisenberg stars as Bobby, a young man trying to make his way in 1930s Hollywood with help from his uncle, a Hollywood executive named Phil (Steve Carrell). The plot thickens with the arrival of Phil's assistant, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), and the three of them make a classic Hollywood love triangle: She likes both the age-appropriate Bobby and her powerful, married boss, but in different ways, so how will she ever choose?

Allen's films have spent a lot of time languishing in nostalgia for idealized, illusive eras in history. Here, the celebrities are so exalted and unreachable it's as if they are literally stars, and Vonnie and Bobby both are desperate to belong among their company. In Vonnie's struggle in particular, we're meant to sympathize with a heart that wants two contradictory things, because any decision will inevitably bring regret and longing for the road untraveled.

Café Society has all the elements of a good Allen picture. The characters are nuanced and intelligent, and yet that burning, romantic feeling is mysteriously absent. This is the 46th directorial feature from Allen, who's made a movie ever year since the 1970s. At 80 years old, every new film of his is a thing to be treasured, because, let's face it, it could be his last. For the sake of his legacy (personal troubles aside) let's hope that his filmography doesn't end with the underwhelming Café Society.

Wiener-Dog and Café Society open at the Roxy Fri., Aug. 12.

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