How social-media activism (and an oddball sitcom) introduced the 80s star to a millennial audience
Danny DeVito is scrolling through his Twitter feed, looking at pictures of his own foot. Hes been sharing them under the hashtag #Trollfoot, which, for the uninitiated, is somewhere between a performance art project and a very public private joke: images and videos of the 71-year-old actors bare trotter held up against a variety of backdrops, gifted to his following of almost 4 million. Its kinda fun, DeVito says, speaking with the Guide over lunch in Manhattans Upper West Side. Theres no explanation, except its me and my foot. And you guys will look at it!
In a way, #Trollfoot resembles a classic DeVito character: grotesque, oddly engaging and, yes, impossible to stop looking at. Many of the diminutive actors most memorable creations are incorrigible, morally dubious types imbued with fizzy gusto and unabashed peculiarity. Consider his Sam Stone in dark comedy Ruthless People (1986), a millionaire businessman bent on murdering his wife (Bette Midler); Gavin DAmato, the super-sleazy lawyer in pitch-black marital farce The War Of The Roses (1989), which DeVito also directed; or the wickedly entertaining villain the Penguin in Tim Burtons Batman Returns (1992).
Fast forward two decades to DeVitos latest role as the hapless Dave Schmerz in Todd Solondzs tragicomedy Wiener-Dog. The darkness is certainly there but the fevered whimsy is lacking. In fact, its alarming to see DeVito portray a character so utterly devoid of spirit. Schmerz is a New York university screenwriting professor who, when not languishing in his boxy apartment, fruitlessly attempts to hawk his screenplay to disinterested agents. His existence comprises a string of indignities: hes warned by his doctor that hes a ticking time bomb on account of his diet; hes disciplined by a superior for his performance at work; and, most gallingly, he is publicly humiliated by a former student, now a cocky, irritatingly successful young director.
So what was it like for DeVito to play such a sad-sack? Todd is a very serious film-maker, and I feel like I gave him what he wanted, he says in a gruff New Jersey drawl. A very weighted, depressed individual, pretty grim. But a lot of his movies have those elements. Hes not wrong: Solondzs blackly humorous filmography is riddled with grave themes, from dark sexual urges (Happiness) to teenage suicide (Palindromes). Then DeVito pauses. Did you feel bad for Dave? he asks, peering over his black horn-rimmed glasses. Yes, I say, and he looks relieved. Its true: he is genuinely touching in a film that sometimes traffics in juvenile misanthropy, most notably in the spectacularly ill-judged finale of its last segment.
Daves bond with Wiener-Dog is particularly poignant. The dachshund is the constant presence across the films four otherwise unrelated vignettes, which include a portrait of an unhappy family, a fraught road trip undertaken by Dawn Wiener a character from Solondzs 1995 Welcome To The Dollhouse who went by the nickname Wiener-Dog (here played by Greta Gerwig) and the painfully awkward reunion of a woman and her grandmother. It would be wrong to spoil the surprise here, but the unsuspecting Wiener-Dog also plays a starring role in Schmerzs cracked plan to escape his bleak circumstances. In real life, it turns out the mutt was actually three dogs named, in stark contrast to the themes of the film, Faith, Hope and Charity. I dont know which one I was with, ever, confesses DeVito. Todd had his hands full trying to get them to sit still, but they hung out with me.
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