I think it’s safe to say that watching a Todd Solondz movie isn’t exactly a pleasurable experience. There’s always the sense that you watched something subversive dressed in a deft appearance of quirk, people who live alienated even from themselves, afraid to really reach out. While nothing here is as transgressive as some of the elements of, let’s say, his 1998 movie Happiness, Solondz happily presents a series of vignettes where the sole presence of a dachsund manages to somehow upset or alter the existences of the people with whom it comes in contact to. I’m going to safely infer that this is not the same dachsund, or that the poor dog is caught in a loop of scenarios and we’re only privy to the four that Solondz presents to us (with a faux intermission exactly 45 minutes in, the halfway mark), because not mentioned but felt — sensed — is the feeling that what we as viewers are witnessing is a warped meta-reality that changes once the desired effect is over, like a vaguely perverse kaleidoscope. Where the dog, called Wiener-dog in the first sequence, upends a rather sterile household led by a frazzled Tracy Letts and a neurotic Julie Delpy (who has the task of explaining the matters of life and death to her recovering son), the same gets abducted by a gawky, uber-shy Greta Gerwig portraying the character Heather Matarazzo played in Welcome to the Dollhouse who in turn goes on a road trip with a guy (Kieran Culkin) she reconnects with, with some sweet results despite hints of drug use and instability). The same dog makes it appearance again as Danny deVito’s pet, and while it has less to do — mainly, this is deVito playing an out of touch writer/professor, it does have an uproarious sequence of mistaken terrorist device that points towards a post 9-11 hysteria.
It’s in the final sequence where Solondz shows his feral grin and it’s a doozy. Without telling much about it, I think it’s safe to say that whatever Solondz was trying to say is compressed in this one mini-story. The dog’s name is Cancer, but that’s not the point: it’s the artificiality of life itself: Ellen Burstyn, robed and under thick sunglasses, croaks and acts like a miser while revealing she posed nude once. Her niece has come to visit, she says she has a part in a movie, but really, she needs money for her boyfriend named Fantasy who’s an artist who hates –HATES — to be compared to Damien Hirst. In a surreal twist, Fantasy and Burstyn’s maid Ivette are dressed in almost identical pink and khaki colors (that may have been an in-joke only Solondz will know about). Once Burstyn’s niece and Fantasy exit the scene, she is faced by clones of the person she could have been “if…” which somewhat echoes the previous storyline where De Vito’s character has become stagnant in his “what if…” approach to storytelling. I’m not going to say how this plays out, but suffice to say, it is as demented as twisted as anything Solondz has ever done and then some. Suffice to say that he doesn’t just go right over the edge — he dives headlong right into it, and ends the film in an exclamation point.