Palindromes (2005): Todd Solodz Weakest Film?

The weakest and most problematic of his films, Todd Solondz’s Palindromes continues his thematic exploration of suburban anomie, again centering on the underdogs and socially oppressed.
However, what was humanely touching in the coming-of-age tale, Welcome to the Doll House, Solondz’s most commercial film, and impressive in scope and depth in Happiness, his best film artistically, has now become an intellectually gimmicky sensibility that fails to humanize his characters and connect with audiences on any level.

Solondz pretends to represent and do justice to the discriminated victims of that uniquely American setting, suburban New Jersey, where he was born and raised. However, by now, it’s a too familiar gallery, one that includes sexual predators, wayward Christians, hypocritical parents, obese adolescents, child molesters, gay children. In the new film, he locks his deviant characters in a hermetic world that has little foundation in any recognizable reality; Palindromes may work better as an allegorical fable.

Artistically, too, with its narrow scope and mediocre production values, Palindromes represents a step down for Solondz. It’s therefore safe to predict that the new movie will not only divide critics, but will appeal to the small coterie of Solondz’s followers. Indeed, with Palindromes, Solondz has made a movie that exists in a limbo, disregarding audiences’ expectations and other conventions.

That said, Palindromes is not without merits. The film is driven by an uncompromising intellectual ambition and is based on a rigorous narrative structure that revolves around one character, Aviva, played by eight different actresses.

Having different actors embody the same role in various phases has been done before (by Bunuel, among others). Using this device–and it is just a device in Palindromes–Solondz goes farther than other filmmakers, casting no less than eight actors to play Aviva: two adults, four teenage girls, one pre-teen boy, and one girl. Along with age and gender, Solondz introduces the variables of race (two of the girls are black) and size (some of the girls are slender, others obese). It’s never made clear what is the motivation or purpose of utilizing such a radical device.

Structurally, there are several links between Palindromes and Welcome to the Dollhouse. Palindromes begins with a serio-comic portrait of the funeral of that film’s protagonist Dawn Wiener. And later in the proceedings, Solondz brings back Aviva’s male cousin and Dawn’s brother, Mark Wiener (played by the same actor, Matthew Faber), who’s now deviant himself.

From the opening funeral sequence, the story moves onto series of grave and intimate conversations between Dawn’s cousin, Aviva (Emani Sledge) and her parents, Joyce (Ellen Barkin) and Steve (Richard Masur) Victor. Desperately seeking love and reassurance from her parents, Aviva is deeply worried that she might end up like the suicidal Dawn.

The movie, which doesn’t follow any chronology, is divided, like Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tennenbaums, into chapters, with the various characters lending the titles, such Judah, Mama Sunshine, Peter Paul, and so on. There may be some irony that pink cards serve the girls’ titles, and blue ones the boys’.

In the next episode, the teenager Aviva (now played by Valerie Shusterov) is anxious to become a mother. To that extent, she talks Judah (Robert Agri), the family’s aspiring filmmaker, into having sex with her. As in all of Solondz’s films, sex is perfunctory, unattractive, often one-sided, and unsatisfying.

The film’s longest scenes and the only engaging ones are those describing the battle of wills between Aviva, whose sole, obsessive desire seems to be motherhood, and her equally stubborn parents, determined to force an abortion at all costs. Shooting her scenes in close-up, Solondz gives Ellen Barkin plenty of field for expressing her emotions as Aviva’s annoyed mom, a privilege s denied from most of his other actors, who seem to function as puppets in a circus-show treated by Solondz as routine suburban life.

Mark helps Aviva run away from her family after the abortion, and–surprise–she turns into a big fat black woman (Sharon Wilkins), who calls herself Henrietta, the name that Aviva would have given her baby daughter. Another act of ugly and pathetic sex follows, this time between Henrietta and a truck driver.

The film’s setting then changes into the home of Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), a hypocritical Christian crusader, who’s presiding over a bunch of misfits, both physically and emotionally impaired. It’s here that Palindromes sinks to a point of no return, losing the little attention audiences had during the previous chapters.

Fortunately, Jennifer Jason Leigh, who renders a terrific, unmannered performance, comes to the rescue as the last Aviva, a young woman who runs away from Mama and returns home, bringing the tale full circle to its beginnings. Lest we forget the deviant characters of Happiness, Solondz turns Mark into an accused child molester of his sister Missy (also from Welcome to the Dollhouse). In the name of liberal open-mindedness, Aviva insists on inviting Mark to her house for a big party.

Do not get me wrong: The narrative is not as erratic as it sounds. If anything, it suffers from over-calculated logic that can only be described as mathematical, even though it lends some justification to the film’s title and to the name of its central character. But as logical as the structure is, Solondz seems unbothered by such issues as meaning and emotion, narrative progression and multi-faceted characterization. Palindromes is thus shallower than Solondz’s other films.

With five films under his belt, Solondz has established himself as our bleakest filmmaker, the chronicler of family malaise and suburban anomie. I have no idea where Solondz is heading, but I know that his next feature will be crucial to his career, after the failure of Storytelling and negative reaction to Palindromes.

What unifies Solondz’s body of work is one motif: The desperate search for personal happiness and love. One positive sign in Solondz’s new work is that he stops aiming at shock for shock’s sake. He must have learned this lesson from his previous film, Storytelling, in which most of the situations and characters were just outrageous, straining for shock value. In sequences, Palindromes is as creepy and bizarre as Happiness, but it is not a shocking film. Solondz must have realized that it’s not easy anymore to shock the increasingly jaded and cynical American viewers.

Some critics have already declared Solondz a misanthrope, a filmmaker who specializes in–and derives perverse joy from–depicting the limitless ugliness and brutality of postmodern American life. For my part, I wish this talented writer director would put his unique sensibility on worthier films than his last two.

Palindromes lacks the gleefully twisted humor and black comedy of Welcome to the Dollhouse or Happiness, movies that manage to fuse cruelty and compassion, loneliness and desire, fantasies and nightmares. Playing with audiences’ expectations is a good, fruitful idea, as Hitchcock and Bunuel have shown in their best work, but in Solondz’s case, the purpose remains vague, to say the least.

Happiness successfully upended the viewers’ assumptions about what our culture considers heartbreaking, comic, and tragic. In that masterly film, Solondz neither idealized nor mocked its Cleaver-like household. Instead, he examines it with poignant accuracy, peeling off layer by layer. Weaving interconnected plot lines and a dozen lives together, he fashioned a bleak but brilliant comedy about loneliness, alienation, and desire. Solondz exposed the boredom, humiliation, and banality that twist people into frustrated desires, leading them to absurd actions and devastating consequences.

The ever-shifting non-plot of Palindromes again owes to Austrian playwright Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde and Altman’s classics, Nashville and Short Cuts. Furthermore, in Palindromes, just as in the previous pictures, most of the characters are self-deluding, self-loathing, and self-absorbed, but, unlike the former works, they’re not funny or touching.

Palindromes is unsettling but not sufficiently multi-layered. The movie is so detached and so enclosed in its own small world that it’s not likely to engender in the audience any form of anxiety, psychological and emotional.

In Palindromes, Solondzs continues to display his goal to challenge and discomfit audiences. But is it enough? We have the right to expect better from the director of Happiness, one of the 1990s most original American films.