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Movies, dining and things to do / Spokane and North Idaho

SIFF 2016: Life’s a bitch

The 42nd annual Seattle International Film Festival has been in progress for nearly two weeks, but I’ve just arrived right in the thick of it. People take their movies seriously here: Most screenings sell out, with lines snaking around the theaters and down the next block.

They’re also passionate – and often vocal – about their opinions on those movies. Consider last night’s screening of writer-director Todd Solondz’s new film “Wiener-Dog,” which inspired a gentleman at the front of a packed Egyptian Theater to bellow, “This movie sucks!” That outburst inspired scattered applause, and a woman sitting near me shouted back, “I agree!”

I’d expect no other response. Solondz is a polarizing, unforgiving filmmaker: His movies, which include “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness,” are basically comedies, but they’re deadpan in the face of discomfort, humiliation and deplorable human behavior. Because they go to creepy, unpleasant places, and because his characters tend to be either reprehensible or pathetic, he’s often condemned as a sadist. That may be true – he obviously finds pleasure in making us squirm in our seats – but it’s also clear that he has certain affection for some of the losers and weirdoes he creates.

“Wiener-Dog” is structured as a quartet of increasingly depressing episodes involving a wayward dachshund (named, at various points, Doody, Cancer and Wiener-Dog) as it is shuffled from household to household. (I’m reminded of Robert Bresson’s great religious parable “Au Hasard Balthazar,” in which a donkey is passed from one horrible owner to another.)

The film opens as a pretentious married couple (Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy) adopts the dog for their young, sickly son. After the dog ingests a chocolate granola bar and nearly dies, it’s saved from euthanasia by a dowdy veterinarian’s assistant (Greta Gerwig, embodying “Welcome to Dollhouse” heroine Dawn Wiener), who embarks on a bizarre cross-country odyssey with an old high school classmate (Kieran Culkin).

The dog becomes more of a supporting player in the film’s two closing chapters, which involve (respectively) a frustrated screenwriting professor (Danny DeVito) and an ailing woman (Ellen Burstyn) who’s visited by her moneygrubbing granddaughter (Zosia Mamet).

Each of these four segments contains a few glimmering moments of humor and empathy, but none of them ever quite take off as standalone entities: Right when they’re about to hit their stride, Solondz moves on to the next scene. And despite its bizarre construction, “Wiener-Dog” doesn’t possess the structural audacity of Solondz’s “Palindromes,” which cast eight different actors as one character, or “Storytelling,” similarly episodic but far more daring.

Considering the subject matter of Solondz’s earlier films – pedophilia, obscene phone callers, abortion, racism, the Holocaust, children with disabilities, murder and suicide – “Wiener-Dog” is a walk in the park for much of its running time. That’s not to say Solondz strays from potentially upsetting material: Some of the issues he considers here, mostly in passing, include juvenile cancer, alcoholism, heroin addiction, immigration, Down’s syndrome and the crushing banality of death.

But in the end, things turn truly ugly, and the audience turned with it. I wondered with sympathy how many members of the SIFF crowd were unfamiliar with Solondz’s work, lured in by the presence of a cute dog and blindsided by its glum consideration of human nature.

For those who are familiar with Solondz, his glowering pessimism is starting to feel a bit one-note. In his ever-expanding library of grotesques, that sweet, doting canine, which becomes the casualty of the narcissism and shortsightedness of its owners, is one of the writer-director’s more pitiable creations. In that respect, “Wiener-Dog” may be the most sneakily nihilistic film Solondz has ever made: If such a pure, sweet creature can’t find solace in this world, then what hope do the rest of us have?

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