Only the singular mind of Todd Solondz would deliver us the closest thing we’ll ever get to a sequel for Welcome to the Dollhouse in the form of a roundabout answer to the question of what became of Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo–now, Greta Gerwig). That answer is Wiener-Dog. Comprised of four separate but intertwined stories, the structure of Wiener-Dog is largely straightforward, save for an intermission that fails to inform us how, exactly, the eponymous wiener dog landed in the hands of Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), the third primary character we’re introduced to–and the one with quite possibly the saddest existence, therefore the most need of a pet.
But before the aptly named (initially so) Wiener Dog ends up in Schmerz’s hands, he is adopted from the pound by a father hoping to give his recently cancer cured son, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cook), an insight into what if feels like to be an average kid. Remi’s mother, Dina (Julie Delpy), is livid with her husband, Danny (Tracy Letts), for bringing such a huge responsibility into their lives. Moreover, Remi’s sensitive nature proves to be a challenge in explaining some of the more basic accepted things about owning a pet, like the need to keep Wiener Dog in a cage in order to “break her will.” When Remi asks what a will is, his father explains that “it’s your character. It’s what makes you you.” Deeply affected by this statement, Remi also grows concerned when Dina says they’re going to spay Wiener Dog, futilely attempting to free her from the car when they arrive at the vet. After, Wiener Dog lies complacently in her cage as Remi looks on with a concerned expression.
Ultimately, Remi’s own psychological issues and hyper-impressionability lead him to try to make Wiener Dog feel better in a manner that proves detrimental, which is how she ultimately ends up in the hands of Dawn, now a veterinarian who rescues the newly named Doody from being put down by nursing her back to health. Dawn’s old junior high tormentor, Brandon (Kiernan Culkin), happens upon her at a convenience store as she’s buying Doody some dog food, only to engage in a telling conversation that infers 1) he has no memory of much of what he did in junior high and 2) he’s creeped out that Dawn wants to get together and catch up. Still, when Brandon sees Doody outside, he is lulled in, casually inviting Dawn to go on a road trip with him to Ohio.
It is later we discover that Brandon has decided to go in person there solely to inform his brother, Tommy (Connor Long), of their father’s recent death as a result of his relapse into alcoholism. His wife, who takes an especial shine to Doody, ends up getting the consolation price of keeping her, a testament to how much Dawn actually cares about Brandon and those important in his life. With Dawn and Brandon on the road again, the passing on of the wiener dog iterates the point that she is meant to serve different purposes of emotional support at particular moments in people’s lives.
In the case of Dave Schmerz, his failure as a screenwriter–accented by his profession as a teacher–and social pariah status among students make his dog essentially his sole companion and psychological outlet. Constantly enduring the judgment of faculty as well for being “too negative,” Schmerz is a skewed mirror of Solondz’s own experiences teaching at NYU. Solondz stated of coming to New York from his native New Jersey, “New York was my Oz. I guess you could say I’m living my dream.” But, as we all know, the dream can often become the nightmare, which is exactly what happens to Schmerz when he reaches his wit’s end. Which, in turn, becomes another new beginning for the wiener dog, now named Cancer in the care of “Nana” (Ellen Burstyn), an aging woman whose granddaughter, Zoe (Zosia Mamet), comes to visit her with her overtly philandering “performance artist” boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael James Shaw). “It’s his real name. His sister’s is Dream,” Zoe asserts. Nana, of course, is nonplussed, knowing full well that the only reason Zoe has come to see her after four years is to ask for money.
Once Zoe and Fantasy leave, Nana is left to reflect in her own backyard, with all the possible versions of her as a youth coming to taunt her about what trajectory her life might have taken if only she didn’t hate people, or had forgiven her daughter or this, that and the other. All the possible outcomes of life that she (and we all) lose out on because of our pride and stubbornness. In her horrified moment of reflection, Wiener Dog/Doody/Cancer is met with her final conclusion–but then, her spirit can never seem to stop inspiring those whose lives she enters. All in all, Solondz’s unlikely “dog movie” is a statement about all we put our pets through. Sure, we think they live a life of luxury and ease, but, in many ways, they get the raw end of the deal–having to put up with our human bullshit.