Easy on the hope: Todd Solondz's playful misery

The director of Wiener-Dog is like Woody Allen's even-more-despairing kid brother – and I don't just mean in his looks.

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In the corner of a deserted cinema bar high above Piccadilly Circus sits a pale, startled-looking man in a maroon jumper. His glasses are perfectly round, with turquoise frames that could have dropped out of a Christmas cracker. His plump lips seem permanently pursed, even when he is talking. The tuft of white hair on his head might very well be dreaming of the days when it used to be a quiff. This is Todd Solondz, the one-time king of provocative US indie cinema, and a dead ringer, in both his appearance and the films he makes, for Woody Allen’s even-more-despairing kid brother.

His breakthrough came in 1995 with Welcome to the Dollhouse, a cruel comedy about a bullied schoolgirl. Three years later he enjoyed widespread critical success with Happiness, which cast a deadpan gaze over paedophiles, stalkers and sex pests. His new film, Wiener-Dog, contains a dash more hope than usual, as well as a few more stars, including Greta Gerwig as a grown-up version of Dawn Wiener, the girl from Dollhouse, and Danny DeVito as a sad-sack ­former film-maker who teaches at New York University (as Solondz does). The director’s world-view, though, is essentially unchanged: pitilessly comic, low on redemption, drenched in misery.

In the light of the sort of films he makes, it is worth pointing out that Solondz is charm personified. At 56, he knows his enfant terrible days are over. “I love being older,” he says in his amused, drawn-out New Jersey whine. “When I was young I looked younger than I was. Now I’m older, I look older than I am. Society regards ageing as negative but I don’t. Being young was very hard for me.”

It is for this reason that Wiener-Dog opens with a shot of a child lying on the grass, ­replicating exactly an image from Richard Linklater’s 2014 hit, Boyhood. Solondz has been known to have a pop in his films at other directors: Storytelling ridiculed the drifting plastic bag scene from American Beauty as revenge on the director Sam Mendes, who had made unkind remarks about Happiness. The Boyhood reference is different. “I admire Richard Linklater,” Solondz says. “But the life he shows in his films is like a parallel one that I was never part of. I look at it and think, ‘If only.’ This warm, recognisable, accessible existence – it’s so alien to me.”

Wistfulness for a life that might have been runs through Wiener-Dog, not least in the resurrection of Dawn Wiener, whose funeral was shown in Solondz’s 2004 film, Palindromes. “I thought it would be nice to give her an alternative existence since I’d killed her off. We all have parallel paths in our heads. As a writer I have the prerogative to bestow different possibilities on my characters.” Indeed. When he made Life During Wartime, a belated sequel to Happiness, no one from the original cast was invited back, and many of the new actors were ostentatiously dissimilar physically from the ones who had originated the roles.

Dawn, however, holds a special fascination for him. “I find her vulnerability and her resilience touching. Her section of the film is the most romantic thing I’ve done. I don’t think I’ve ever shown that sense of hope before.” Of course, it’s all relative: Dawn’s Mr Right is the same ex-classmate who once told her to meet him at the school gates at 3.30 to be raped. Dawn showed up, punctual as ever.

Wiener-Dog is structurally interesting – it uses the changing ownership of one dachshund to link four separate stories of hard knocks and thwarted dreams – but then that is usually true of Solondz’s films. Palindromes cast eight actors of assorted ages, races and genders as the same 13-year-old girl who flees home after being forced to have an abortion; the role was passed from one to the next like a baton in a relay race. “I don’t make movies as often as I’d like. Maybe that’s why I pack in more stories, more material, than you would usually find.” He tilts his head almost coquettishly. “Also, I like to play.”

If the tenor of Solondz’s films hasn’t ­mellowed, his life has taken a few unexpected turns. There’s that teaching gig, for a start. “I love the students,” he says, “but NYU is such an evil empire. The incompetence . . . at the heart of this administration is magnificent.

“The movie business has a reputation for shadiness and cheating but in academia, where the stakes are so much smaller, the fighting is so much more vicious.”

Solondz is also now a father-of-two. (When later I tell a friend this news, his incredulous response mirrors exactly my own thoughts: “Todd Solondz has had sex?”) At one point, he whips out his frayed wallet, emblazoned with a giant cartoon arrow, and produces from it photographs of his seven-year-old son and five-year-old daughter, posing stiffly in their Sunday best. I’m rather touched that he has given me this glimpse into his personal life. In true Sol­ondz style, there’s a kicker. “I show these to everyone,” he mumbles, careful not to make me feel singled out or special, snatching back the gesture of intimacy almost as soon as it has been made.

“Wiener-Dog” (certificate 15) is out on general release now

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 11 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, From the Somme to lraq