In "Palindromes," Middle-class Jersey Life Again in Solondz' Sights
by Peter Brunette
After the brouhaha occasioned by his last feature, "Storytelling" (2001), American indie director Todd Solondz is back with "Palindromes," another assault on middle-class American pieties. It's still too early to muster a definitive or even definite opinion of the film -- it's achingly simple and extraordinarily complex at the same time -- and it's sure to split audiences. What can be assayed here therefore is little more than a first description, an interim report.
As with all his previous films, including the masterful "Welcome to the Dollhouse," which first announced him as a major new talent in 1995, and the equally accomplished "Happiness" (1998), "Palindromes" is set within a middle-class Jewish family living in suburban New Jersey. Once again the social landscape is peopled by a host of misfits, grotesques, pushy parents, and deeply unhappy teenagers.
Twelve-year-old Aviva wants nothing more than to become a mother, and does what she needs to do to make that happen, but her Mom (played with gusto by Ellen Barkin), steers her toward an abortionist to put an end to that unlikely dream. She runs off and encounters a deeply Christian family named the Sunshines, a stand-up-for-Jesus group that is populated by an assortment of crippled, retarded, and otherwise damaged kids. Aviva ends up back in New Jersey with Earl, a friend of the Sunshines (and a truckdriver who had earlier raped her, but whom she loves), as he seeks to murder her abortionist.
This plot may sound a bit outlandish, and certainly ripe for the irony that Solondz heaps on by the barrelful, but easy enough to follow. What greatly increases the complexity, however, is that in each part of story, Aviva is played by a different actress, stretching all the way from an innocent young girl with pigtails and braces to an older, supremely overweight black woman to, at the end of the film, Jennifer Jason Leigh. It's impossible to tell exactly what motivated this choice, but even though the character stays exactly the same as written, from scene to scene, it's amazing how different our reactions are depending on whom we see before us.
The humor is deeply black here, as always in a Solondz film, and the Christian right comes in for some powerful skewering. This occurs not through cheap point-scoring via the articulation of sanctified liberal sentiments -- if any liberals had the temerity to show up in a Solondz film, it's clear that they too would be creamed -- but mostly by simply setting the Sunshine family in front of us and exposing us to their aggressive, relentless cheer and good will. At the dinner table, the pathetic kids vie with each other to tell the most grotesque personal history. Over and over, you want to laugh at them but feel guilty about it -- the classic Solondz topos -- especially, for example, when the lame and the halt are made to dance wildly before us in praise of Jesus. It's like watching a series of Diane Arbus photographs that have come magically, and painfully, to life.
Solondz's forte, as always, is the delicious gap that he is able to create between the tone of a scene and the sentiments characters express within it. Thus, when the Barkin character is trying to comfort her daughter by recounting an earlier abortion of her own, amidst all the overwrought expressions of a mother's love and the gooey, sentimental music, she talks of "getting rid of that little Henry guy." At another moment she tries to convince Aviva that her fetus is not really a baby at all, but "just a tumor."
If there is a moral to the story, it comes at the suburban get-together near the end of the film when the nerd Mark, an accused pedophile and clear stand-in for the director (he even looks like him), makes a little speech to the effect that we can never, ever change, and that we are condemned to live the lives that have been ordained for us by randomness and our genes. This sentiment stands in direct contrast to that of Earl, rapist and anti-abortionist, who has earlier plaintively wailed, "How many times can I be born again?"
"Palindromes," it must finally be said, is not quite as strong as Solondz's previous films. There are too many flat moments, moments where the bitter irony is merely repeated rather than developed. And it gets tiresome, finally, laughing at people. But even on a less than perfect day, Solondz is way better than almost any other American director of his generation.
[Yesterday's review of "Sideways" was initially published with an incorrect byline, it was written by Peter Brunette.]