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All words: Alan Pyke

Danny DeVito, Greta Gerwig, and a wiener dog walk into a bar. Punchline: People are garbage floating around an indifferent universe!

Not laughing? Fine. But don’t skip Todd Solondz’s lovingly misanthropic black comedy Wiener Dog just because it defies easy summary, and I’m writing while on painkillers. It’s an ideal mix of treacle and battery acid: one part gut-buster, one part heart-breaker, plus a splash of vermouth.Solondz stitches together four 20-minute vignettes about the lives a small brown dog passes between, mostly without bothering to explain her transfers of ownership. The film is, naturally, less about the dog than her owners, each broken or breakable or hapless in their own ways. Grimly funny, achingly humane to even its most unlovely humans, the latest from the Welcome to the Dollhouse director is a brick wrapped in thin candy coating and thrown through the window of fabled American ideas: Success resides in suburbia, or in the arts, or actually – stop laughing – it’s all about love and family.

In slipperier filmmaking hands, the whole thing would fall apart. But Solondz nails his clapboard story together with understated grace. And he gets a string of clutch assists from his actors, Gerwig and DeVito in particular.Solondz’s tricks are subtle but unmistakable. He imbues the four-act story with a visual and aural rhythm that does more to connect each clump of human observations to the next, using more than the mere physical presence of the titular dog could on its own.

The color palette is tightly controlled, cycling between clear natural light, dim melancholy blue, and a sickly greenish-yellow. The blues seem almost sarcastic – one shot seems like a conscious send-up of the poster for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – and Solondz leans further and further away from it as his story advances.

Perhaps because it is the most jarring, the jaundiced green conveys the most striking connections. The unhappy suburban family of the opening act leaves the dog caged in a yellowish garage overnight. In the second act’s frayed-family road trip sequences, that same hospice tone clings less to the dog than to Gerwig’s heroin-relapsing travel companion. DeVito’s third-act film professor sadsack moves around, but only from one sterile yellowish room to another.

The color motifs push Wiener Dog along on an ebb tide of existential dread. But its the audio track where Solondz conjures bleak, powerful laughs from each corner of the picture. The approximate plot and character points of each vignette are familiar, and Solondz underlines the indie sensibilities he’s lampooning through musical choices. The suburban misery of the opening act gets a tinkling piano line that could appear in any of a thousand redundant arthouse studies of white tears.

Gerwig’s adventures take that same music in a more accelerated, happier direction, but Solondz overlays the tune with an extended, recurring poop joke of a lyric. And DeVito’s half-assed quest against a film school community long since turned against him gets a boppy vibraphone score that sounds like something Marvin Hamlisch might’ve won an Oscar for when you were still in diapers.

The progression drips with grinning bile, and the end credits lift the curtain on the gag: all three of them were “Claire de Lune,” played three ways, each yanked out of shape and rejiggered to fit the director’s slick, mean wiseassery. It’s a convoluted joke, but it fits here. On some level, that’s what Wiener-Dog is: love songs for smartasses.