I’m not sure what to make of Palindromes, the latest film from writer/director Todd Solondz (“the bad-vibe bard of the north New Jersey suburbs,” was David Edelstein’s apt precis). I certainly can’t say I enjoyed it, though the sheer audacity of its methods is, at times, stimulating. I didn’t find it particularly insightful; its central theme is the question of whether human personality is mutable or predetermined (the title is a metaphor for the inevitable return to one’s essential self), but it doesn’t really get very far with it. Solondz has put the argument for predetermination into the mouth of a truly loathsome character, Mark Weiner (Matthew Faber, reprising his role from Welcome to the Dollhouse), who may (like the sympathetic Bill Maplewood in Happiness) or may not be a pedophile, but who is so unappealing as written, cast, and played that it wouldn’t matter if he were a selfless international aid worker or heroic fireman; there’s really no way to like him or to empathize.
The film’s vision is of America as a strip-mall hell where no one connects with anyone else and every action has an opposite and absurdly exaggerated reaction. Its central character is Aviva Victor, a sweet, plain 13-year-old girl whose parents (Ellen Barkin and Richard Masur) can’t understand that all she really wants is to be a mommy. When she’s knocked-up by the similarly plain and plump adolescent son of her parents’ friends, they insist she have an abortion. There are complications, though, and sweet, clueless little Aviva winds up having a hysterectomy. She runs away from home, has unpleasant sex with a truck driver who gives her a ride, and is taken in by super-religious Mama Sunshine and her husband Bo. Mama is mother to a brood of 10 special-needs kids who symbolize the birth defects Aviva’s mother warned her that her baby might bear (one has Down syndrome, one’s a blind albino, another is a hearing-impaired dwarf, one has no arms, etc.). They’re not bogged down in self-pity, though, and their cheery outlook is epitomized by a musical act that’s like the unfortunate cast of Tod Browning’s Freaks doing a production of “Up with People,” complete with ‘N Sync-style choreography and peppy bubblegum pop about the love of Jesus and everyone’s right to be born. It turns out that Bo Sunshine is mixed up with violent pro-life activists, and before long Aviva is involved in a plot to murder the very doctor who performed her botched abortion.
In outline, the story sounds like it could be a satire of the pro-choice/pro-life battle à la Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor’s brilliantly comic Citizen Ruth. But Solondz is after something else entirely, a statement about the inevitable and unchangeable flaws in humanity, in which the abortion debate merely provides a handy duality. Palindromes is set up as a sort-of fairytale, but its view of humanity and of cause/effect is more downbeat than anything even the Brothers Grimm could have conjured.
Solondz’s films have been progressively less fun for the audience, moving from the story of relatable underdog Dawn Weiner in Welcome to the Dollhouse to the morally questionable (and more than questionable) but still marginally sympathetic characters of Happiness to the evil, pathetic, or thoroughly clueless figures of Storytelling. He opens Palindromes with a funeral for Dawn Weiner, and it feels like a penance; Solondz seems to feel uncomfortable with having ever created a character audiences might have identified with. (Solondz explains that Heather Matarazzo has refused to reprise the role, which is understandable given the way she’s subsequently been typecast, but there’s no reason why Dawn needed to have anything to do with the story of Palindromes, unless it’s to remind the audience of Solondz’s credentials on the subject of hapless adolescents.) Dawn was Aviva’s cousin, and her suicide hangs over Aviva’s story as a reminder of where hopelessness can drive you.
Solondz’s characters have always been deeply flawed, but in his previous films he gave a way in, an opportunity to find some common ground and care about them. Here, he’s made it impossible to connect; you can’t even get a read on his central character because she’s not the same person from one sequence to the next—literally. The part of Aviva is played by “two women, four girls (13-14 years old), one 12-year-old boy, and one 6-year old girl.” Solondz’s stated goal is to question our sympathy with film protagonists — do we like, say, Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality because Gracie Hart is a sympathetic character or because she’s played by a beautiful, shapely Hollywood star? Would we feel differently if she were black? If she were fat? If she were a guy? Well, we would, naturally, because our understanding of the character would be different if she were played by a different actor, but we’d have no way to relate to her at all if she were played by different actors from one scene to the next.
The different-actors trick is not unique to Solondz; in interviews he invokes everything from That Obscure Object of Desire to “Bewitched,” and regular viewers of daytime soaps have long been accustomed to accepting a character suddenly being 10 pounds lighter and five inches taller or returning from boarding school eight years older than when she left a year ago. The problem with Solondz’s method is that the questions he’s asking have been answered — and warnings have been issued. Yes, we notice the change (though the other actors pretend not to), and yes it changes our perceptions of the character. But more importantly, we know that it’s a distraction that distances the audience from the character and the story. Call up my grandmother and ask her about “The Young and the Restless”; you’ll hear much less about Victoria Newman’s storyline than you will about the new actor playing Victoria and why she’s better or worse than the old one.
The film’s pace is slow, but not in the sense of being pleasurably languorous, and its soundtrack is infused with a trilling vocal that recalls, not incidentally, Rosemary’s Baby. Palindromes initially plays like a series of short films; each episode has a title card that lets us know we’re entering a new chapter of the story, and we understand soon enough that this also means a different Aviva. There are also lacunae between episodes; we have to guess at some of the events that led from the end of one to the beginning of the next. After a half-hour or so, I surrendered to Solondz’s method — it was either that or walk out of the theater — and the sequences didn’t seem so dissonant. The dissonances I noted then were between the compassionate reactions Solondz says he intends us to have and the sadistic way he shapes them. He says the bizarrely cheerful Sunshine family is meant to be happy and well adjusted, but the kids’ impairments are constantly played for unfunny sick jokes. Mama Sunshine says she let the blind girl cut open a package, and the blind girl holds up her bandaged fingers. Mama tells Aviva she hopes she won’t be running away again and reminisces, “Last year our special daughter, Nadica, ran away … and she didn’t even have any legs!” The Aviva who meets the Sunshines is a problem as well. She’s played by Sharon Wilkins, an obese black woman who could be anywhere between 20 and 35, and the disconnect between her appearance and the character is played for cheap laughs, as when Mama Sunshine greets her saying, “You sure do look like you could use some good home cooking!”
Solondz simply doesn’t seem to have the temperament necessary to bring this story off; even absent the distraction of eight Avivas, he lacks the compassion necessary to make us care about these characters. His impulse is to satirize everyone, and he makes them all symbols of a certain type of ugly American, either the blinkered liberal whose progressive ideas end where their personal comfort begins or the blinkered conservative whose notion of God’s love includes a willingness to assassinate those who disagree. There are no characters, only types, and Solondz doesn’t seem to have affection for any of them.
Given Solondz’s approach, it’s no surprise that the performances are highly variable. Ellen Barkin, ordinarily a gifted and empathetic actor, has a couple of good scenes — she plays her character’s hypocrisy with vivid obliviousness — but in scenes with less trained actors, as when she’s talking to the six-year-old Aviva (Emani Sledge), she seems to sink to their amateurish level. Richard Masur seems merely doughy and clueless; since he doesn’t symbolize anything in particular, he’s been given nothing to play. Debra Monk’s Mama Sunshine is mostly bland cheerfulness, and when she does get a chance to play something a little richer, Solondz undercuts her (as with the legless runaway bit). The most layered performance is by playwright Stephen Adly-Guirgis, who plays the truck driver Aviva meets and convinces herself she’s in love with. He’s a man with a dark past and highly questionable future, and Adly-Guirgis makes his confusion and self-loathing believable and deeply felt.
The Avivas are a mixed bag. Emani Sledge, the six-year-old who opens (and, naturally, closes) the film is a six-year-old girl, not an actor. Jennifer Jason Leigh is most definitely an actor, and a far too familiar (and middle-aged) one for us to buy her as Aviva, though she does nice work slipping into the passivity and regressiveness of a confused 13-year-old. Sharon Wilkins tries to do the same, but her age and size make it impossible, and Solondz’s use of those factors, plus her race, to set up cruel jokes is troubling. Most of the right-aged Avivas do just fine with the role, hitting the appropriate notes of desperation and longing, but the standout here is Valerie Shusterov, who plays Aviva more often than anyone else, in segments that alternate between each of the other actors. Shusterov seems a little stiff and unconvincing at first, but when she’s gotten involved with the weak, passive truck driver and has to take control of the situation, assuming the adult role in the equation, she becomes a surprisingly assured and thoughtful performer.
So, here I am, 1,600-odd words later, and I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about Palindromes. It’s an experimental film, and a failed one in most ways, but I have a grudging admiration for Todd Solondz as an artist who’s willing push buttons that most people don’t want pushed while also pushing himself up to and beyond the limits of his talent. It’s a boldly uncommercial film, one that Solondz sank his own life savings into when no studio would back him, and, as a booster of the underdog, I wish it were a more successful film than it is. Its reception, both critical and box office, isn’t likely to dissuade Solondz of his dim view of humanity, and it concerns me that his next film, if he’s even able to finance another, may be even more cynical and cruel. His approach as a filmmaker has always been that of the unloved outsider, and perhaps by making a film that almost no one could like he’s reacting against the warm critical response to his previous work — he needs to be hated in order to feel at home.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Film | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()