Looking at that photo above, one might think that Wiener-Dog is a charming, little movie about a dachshund. Even the synopsis of the film provided on Sundance’s official site provides this description: Wiener-Dog tells several stories featuring people who find their life inspired or changed by one particular dachshund, who seems to be spreading a certain kind of comfort and joy. But, then you remember that the film is directed by Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness), and you realize that can’t be quite right. A dog bringing joy to people’s lives? From Todd Solondz?? Yeah, not quite. In fact, Wiener-Dog feels more like an elaborate practical joke on people who might think it’s just a movie about a lovable little dog.

The film is told, anthology-style, following four separate characters as Wiener-Dog finds her way into their lives. (The dog itself goes by multiple names in the film including Wiener-Dog, Doody and Cancer.) The stories, which include Greta Gerwig as Solondz mainstay Dawn Wiener and Danny DeVito as a struggling screenwriter, seem to intersect at first, explaining how Wiener-Dog gets from one owner to the next, but the film quickly abandons that structure; these stories connect more thematically than they do structurally.

Wiener-Dog breezes along and you start to wonder if Solondz has made his softest and most accessible film yet. There’s even an intermission scored to an original song (“The Ballad of Wiener-Dog,” written by Tony winner Marc Shaiman) with an adorable tracking shot of this lovable little dog waddling across various backgrounds. And then…

It’s difficult to discuss this movie without getting into a major spoiler at the end of the film, so instead of dancing around it, let’s just address it head on. SPOILERS AHEAD.

At the end of the last act, Wiener-Dog runs from the backyard into the middle of a busy street and is hit by a truck, splattering his cute little body on the road. Solondz lingers on the shot, holding tight on the gory remains. Another truck speeds by and thumps over the bloody corpse. Then a carful of teenagers. Finally a tiny smart car. In an epilogue we find out that Wiener-Dog’s body was scraped off the ground by an avant-garde artist, who stuffs him and turns him into an animatronic art installation. THE END.

You can imagine the collective gasps as this dog, who has bonded with all the characters in the film and with us as an audience, is killed in grisly fashion right before our eyes. It’s a twist that turned off a large chunk of the audience at the Sundance premiere, but to be fair, it is in keeping with the rest of the movie, a meditation on mortality.

It’s no accident that these four stories are told from the vantage point of characters at different, advancing ages throughout their lives. It starts with a young boy, shifts to a woman in her 20s, then to a middle-aged man and finally an elderly woman. The young boy was a cancer survivor, Dawn Wiener travels with a former classmate (Kieran Culkin) who has to tell his mentally disabled brother their father died and, in the final installment before Wiener-Dog meets her demise, Ellen Burstyn plays a woman on the verge of death who’s visited by angelic, younger versions of herself with warnings of how she should’ve lived a better life. Everyone in the movie is struggling with the idea of overcoming death, and even as Wiener-Dog meets it head on, she continues to live on. Albeit as a stuffed robot in a glass box.

There’s enough in the movie to enjoy (Burstyn and DeVito’s segments were particularly moving and there’s both some overt and deadpan laughs) that one wrong move at the end, doesn’t completely write off everything that proceeded it, but it’s also not as advertised. Or, maybe it’s exactly as advertised. Wiener-Dog didn’t feel like a Todd Solondz movie at all, until all the sudden it very much did, for better or worse.

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