It is no great joy to review Palindromes, the latest film from writer and director Todd Solondz, who is loved by those who do not loathe him for such movies as Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness, and Storytelling. Advance word had Palindromes as Solondz’ most shocking film, which seemed impossible, given its predecessors — Happiness, especially, with its understanding portrayal of a pedophile (understanding, because it’s not quite sympathetic). Yet with Palindromes‘ matter-of-fact depictions of a teenage girl getting pregnant, having a botched abortion, being anally raped (“Can you still get pregnant this way?” she wonders), falling in with do-gooder Christians who’ve hired a hit man to off an abortionist, and other assorted perversions, surely one could understand the critical jaw-dropping. That it’s actually quite dull — not to mention listlessly distancing, the result of a gimmick that finds eight actors playing the lead character — is perhaps the most shocking thing of all.
The diehards who actually see the film — and one gets the sense that Solondz’ is a cult of dwindling proportions — will wind up arguing amongst themselves whether the filmmaker is for or against abortion, or even the right to choose. So horrific are his depictions of both sides of the argument — the liberal mom (Ellen Barkin) who forces her daughter to have one and the conservative Christian mother figure (Debra Monk) who collects physically and emotionally damaged children — that either side could make a good case. The heroes are villains, the villains are heroes, and in between are the innocents who become casualties in their wars waged in the names of morality and righteousness.
But there is no heart in the artlessness of Palindromes, which manages to feel both smug and sincere all at once — it damns even the people the filmmaker seems to love most, even the audience. The film opens at the funeral of Dawn Wiener, the awkward, put-upon heroine of Dollhouse played by Heather Matarazzo, who, we discover, has not only killed herself but done so after being date-raped and impregnated; apparently, she had also become fat, with acne stretched over her expansive frame. Solondz not only wanted to kill off Dawn, apparently, but also to humiliate her in absentia. Her horrid ghost hovers over the proceedings, this awkward girl we once liked now nothing more than a punch line and a punching bag for the director who created her. You can almost hear the filmmaker over your shoulder as you’re watching Palindromes, mocking the audience in his high-pitched whine: To hell with Dawn, and to hell with you. Solondz, like Hal Hartley and Mike Figgis and a few other formerly important indie filmmakers, is starting to come off as someone who not only believed his own press clippings but apparently wrote them as well.
In Dawn’s place is thirteen-year-old Aviva, Dawn’s cousin and a character played by a merry-go-round of performers, including, at one point, a young boy (Will Denton, who, poor boy, also played the young, sexually confused Alfred Kinsey last year) and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Aviva, first seen as a young black girl (Emani Sledge), feels the aching need to have a child, she tells her mother (Barkin) — to love something that will love her back, unconditionally. But when she becomes pregnant, her mother, who explains that she, too, once aborted a child she came to name Henry, takes her to a doctor who mangles Aviva’s insides, rendering the child barren. The girl, now young and white, then runs away, escaping the dreary New Jersey suburbs in which all of Solondz’ movies have taken place, and finds herself in a motel bedroom with a truck driver named Joe (Stephen Adly Guirgis), who loathes himself for fucking a child, but doesn’t stop himself.
From there, Aviva morphs into a four-hundred-pound black woman (Sharon Wilkins) and finds herself in the countryside amid the feel-good freak show at Mama Sunshine’s house. There, a dozen children suffering myriad ailments and deformities have formed a sort of boy band, which performs uplifting pop-rock numbers with such titles as “Every Child Has a Right to Be Born.” It’s a welcome respite — the movie, for all its would-be shocks and wannabe frights, is quite boring — but also a laugh that sickens the longer it plays. You can’t tell whether Solondz is laughing at or with these kids, and finally just stop caring, which renders them only the butt of a pointless joke. But in the basement, evil deeds are being plotted: Bo Sunshine (Walter Bobbie) and Dr. Dan (Richard Riehle) are plotting to kill the very abortionist who botched Aviva’s operation. Dr. Dan, too, warns Mama Sunshine that her newest guest is not a saintly child, but a damaged slut; he tells her he even has the pictures to prove it, the creep.
And on and on it goes, with Aviva altering faces and figures; when she becomes Jennifer Jason Leigh, it’s almost a relief (at last, a friendly and familiar face). It’s Leigh’s Aviva who encounters Dollhouse‘s Mark Wiener (Matthew Faber), a pariah at a family gathering after having been accused of kiddie rape. He explains he’s done no such thing, then delivers a long monologue about how people are who they are and will always be who they’ve been — hence the movie’s title, which is about as on the nose as Bozo’s red rubber ball. We never change, no matter what we look like (or who plays us, apparently); we do not evolve; we do not grow or learn; we give nothing and take nothing. Solondz may buy it, may not — who knows, and who cares? It’s just an easy gimmick, the glib whatever sentiment of a guy who thinks he’s shocking us, but couldn’t, at this late date, even if he threw us in a bathtub with a toaster.