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In 'Wiener-Dog,' Todd Solondz tries a little (but not too much) tenderness

The controversial director's eight feature follows a mutt across four stories jostling between cruelty and warmth (and dog poo).

Greta Gerwig pals around with a dachsund in the second segment of Todd Solondz's "IFC Films

Todd Solondz
Stars: Greta Gerwig, Ellen Burstyn
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Perhaps we’re supposed to think of Todd Solondz films as bleak, cynical, at times bitter. That’s with good reason: His movies are bleak, cynical, at times bitter. But they’re also, in pockets, tender, empathetic, even hopeful. Even moments that seem straight-on dark tend to be more complex than we might think. Take a scene late in the episodic “Wiener-Dog,” Solondz’s eighth feature. We meet Nana (Ellen Burstyn), an old crank with Bono-sized sunglasses that devour half her face, who only speaks in withering put-downs. She’s come into care of a cute dog; inevitably she’s named her “Cancer.” We’ve seen her entertain a deeply awkward and stilted visit from the granddaughter (Zosia Mamet) who never visits, who mostly showed up because she needed money.

Nana has given up on a life she never thought much of to begin with. In the scene in question she’s confronted with a vision of her girlhood self, and the very different paths her life could have taken. (E.g., had she not given up, had she actually liked people, etc.) Suddenly Nana is flooded with remorse and guilt. Burstyn’s face, previously frozen in a downward scowl, opens up and we see someone both regretting her life and newly energized by this epiphany. Something cartoonishly bad — something typically Solondzesque — will happen to her immediately after. But she’s allowed this moment of rich awareness, and it’s sad but also, in its way, beautiful.

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Told in the same precise-minimalist manner of all his films, “Wiener-Dog” isn’t the film that turns haters. There are still copious horrors. Over four stories connected only by a wandering dachshund (nicked from Robert Bresson’s 1966 great “Au Hasard Balthazar,” which trailed a donkey, not a mutt), we’ll see a kid who beat cancer watch as his new dog is taken from him by evil parents. There will be a rapturous-jokey tracking shot over a long stream of dog diarrhea set to “Clair de Lune.” (The cinematographer, Ed Lachman, shoots it with all the love he poured into shooting “Carol.”) That’s to say nothing about a final post-epilogue moment so over-the-top nasty that all one can do is laugh.

But it is a film — like the more serene “Life During Wartime” — where the spots of genuine warmth make the darker moments in this and all his films seem, if less abrasive, then at least more complex, not so easily reduced. In the stretch about a depressed, aging film professor (Danny DeVito), we get a tacit, grumpy dig at young, self-involved youths who talk about their desire to make “identity-based” movies while wearing “I Can’t Breathe” tees — figures of fun in a film that isn’t always very woke. This could be read as a codger braying about the kids these days. But Solondz isn’t picking sides. He might have empathy for DeVito’s character, but the guy is also a stick-in-the-mud, who really has given up on his craft and closed himself off to hearing others. The kids have a point, abrasive about it though they may be.

“Wiener-Dog” gets darker as it goes on, which makes sense: Its four stories proceed from childhood to old age, all of them haunted, to various degrees, by death. But the first half seems downright optimistic, at least when horrible things aren’t happening. There are rough patches in the initial segment, in which insensitive, wealthy parents (Julie Delpy and playwright Tracy Letts, both movie-stealingly funny) gift their sensitive young son with the eponymous dog only to immediately regret it. But the scenes between mutt and boy are unfailingly warm, as is nearly all of the second story, which exhumes “Welcome to the Dollhouse”’s Dawn Wiener — whom Solondz killed off in 2005’s “Palindrones,” now played by a reliably mousy Greta Gerwig — to grant a punished character a nicer send-off. The kinder moments in “Wiener-Dog” don’t make his bleaker films any less bleak. But they can make you want to switch your take on Solondz to “It’s complicated.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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