Early in Todd Solondz’s “Wiener-Dog,” the dachshund that gives the movie its title eats a granola bar and suffers the gastric consequences. In a sense, so do we. In a long, almost loving shot, we follow a trail of the dog’s unpleasantness in a suburban gutter. It’s set to Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”
What are we supposed to do with this scene, or indeed with any Todd Solondz movie? His films are routinely described as dark and misanthropic — his best-known film, “Happiness,” wrung humor from the plight of a pedophile — yet Solondz doesn’t see his movies that way. He once said: “My movies are not for everybody, especially for people who like them.”
“Wiener-Dog,” which follows that little dachshund over the course of four fairly miserable owners, may strike even Solondz’s fans as his angriest movie yet. All of his signature touches are here: thwarted characters, suburban malaise, deadpan delivery of the bitterest lines. Yet this is also Solondz’s most broadly comic — almost wacky — movie to date. It breaks for intermission to play “The Ballad of Wiener-Dog,” a Western theme by Broadway tunesmiths Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.
As always, Solondz gathers an excellent, eclectic cast. Julie Delpy plays a mother who dispenses dubious wisdom about animals (“Nature doesn’t care about them”) to her wide-eyed young son. Greta Gerwig is perfect as Dawn Wiener, of Solondz’s “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (1995), now grown but still mooning over would-be rapist Brandon (Kieran Culkin). Ellen Burstyn shines as an elderly woman whose personal failings take the form of angels. “That’s you,” one says sadly, “if you had left bigger tips.”
The show stealer, though, is Danny DeVito as Dave Schmerz, a hidebound film professor whose students are smug rich kids full of “transgressive” theory but bereft of ideas. It’s hard not to see Schmerz, who’s going a little mad, as a vengeful fantasy for Solondz, who teaches at New York University.
Solondz likes to stick the knife in his characters, and he gives it a heck of a twist here. If you’re able to laugh through the pain, then “Wiener-Dog” should keep you in stitches.