Ambivalence is the order of the day when it comes to Todd Solondz's films: You're never sure whether you're supposed to love or hate his characters. Sometimes it seems the indie writer-director loathes his creations.
From the awkward square peg in 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse to the man-child in 2011's Dark Horse, Solondz gives us complicated, misunderstood misfits who often behave badly.
If the antiheroes are hard to take, Solondz's supporting players - compulsive liars, narcissists, and child molesters - are simply damnable.
Not so the characters in his new feature, Wiener-Dog.
Starring Ellen Burstyn, Julie Delpy, Greta Gerwig and Danny DeVito, among others, Solondz's eighth feature is a poetic, almost gentle, and sharply funny meditation on mortality that's sustained not by bile but compassion, even love.
It's one of Solondz's most accomplished works to date and also his most accessible since Dollhouse.
Wiener-Dog features a hapless female dachshund who keeps being handed off to new owners. Using the dog's arrival and departure as the film's structure, Solondz strings together four vignettes about people who are somehow touched by death.
The first piece features Delpy and Tracy Letts as the parents of a little boy named Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke) who has just emerged from an almost deadly battle with childhood leukemia. It's clear the adults have grown to despise each other and have stayed together only for the sake of their son.
In the episode, the dog, which Remi names Doody, becomes a symbolic repository of each family member's anxiety about life and death.
Another vignette features Gerwig as a veterinary assistant who rescues Doody after Remi's parents decide to have the dog put down. DeVito stars in a third piece as a screenwriting professor whose own writing career has stalled. Burstyn anchors the last piece as a terminally ill artist who is losing her eyesight.
Wiener-Dog has a satirical edge as sharp as any Solondz has fashioned, but it is also filled with disarming moments of absurdist humor.
Viewers wary of the director's reputation as a savage satirist will be pleasantly surprised by the deeply felt humanism in Wiener-Dog. Death may be a prevalent theme, but the film is deeply life-affirming.
sss1/2 (Out of four stars)
yDirected by Todd Solondz. With Ellen Burstyn, Kieran Culkin, Julie Delpy, Danny DeVito. Distributed by IFC Films.
yRunning time: 1 hour, 30 mins.
yParent's guide: R (disturbing thematic content, profanity).
yPlaying at: Ritz East.