Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/28/05 23:51:38

"Not beneath contempt-but definitely at the same level as contempt"
1 stars (Sucks)

After the wholesale disaster of his last film, the hateful and ill-conceived “Storytelling,” you might guess that any follow-up project from misanthropic moviemaker Todd Solondz would have to be better by comparison, if only because it would seem to be impossible to sink any lower. His latest effort, “Palindromes,” is slightly better than “Storytelling,” though not nearly enough to make it worth watching. This time, Solondz has chosen to be “provocative” in the laziest manner possible–by choosing a subject that he know will inspire a divided reaction no matter what he says or does and fuses it to a overly self-conscious narrative style to create a film that will inspire rave reviews from equally lazy critics who are distracted enough by the surface details to not realize that there is nothing else going on.

Here, the subject is abortion and the story deals with Aviva, a 12-year-old girl who desperately wants to have lots of babies and tries to get herself pregnant. She does, but when her well-meaning mother (Ellen Barkin) forces her to undergo a botched abortion that leaves her unable to ever have kids (a fact that she doesn’t know), she runs away and goes on a strange odyssey that plays like “Huck Finn” as alternately written by pro-life and pro-choice opponents. The gimmick is that Aviva is played by eight different people at various times, including by a young boy, a hefty black woman and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

In his one decent film, “Happiness,” Solondz made one of his characters a child molester and dared to portray him as a conflicted and confused human being instead of as a monster. Since then, however, he has devolved into a ham-fisted crank hell-bent on portraying all of his characters either as sap victims or thick-headed caricatures of stupid behavior–this attitude is apparently retroactive since “Palindromes” opens with the funeral of the one slightly likable character to ever appear in one of his previous films–and this effort is no exception. All of the characters say and do shocking things but they always like bits conceived by a writer desperate to push buttons without ever seeming realistic for a second. He brings in one character at the end, who has also been accused of child molesting, to deliver a long and embittered speech about how people are unable to change themselves on the inside, no matter what they do on the outside, for no other reason than to set up the moment when Aviva says, “I don’t think you’re a pedophile. Pedophiles love children.”

Although the film never quite succumbs to the desperate narrative tricks that were deployed in “Happiness” (where even the most innocuous and little-seen character turned out to be a serial rapist/murderer) or “Storytelling” (which required nothing short of hypnosis to drag in a key plot development), Solondz once again shows that he can’t tell the difference between a good idea and a bad one. One of the key developments here comes when Aviva is taken under the wing of Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), a born-again Christian who, with her husband, has opened her home and heart to a houseful of developmentally challenged adoptees, who travel the countryside as a musical group singing upbeat anthems of how special they truly are. For a few moments, the film works because it is actually providing a thoughtful example of the pro-life agenda–these are the types of kids that Aviva’s pro-choice mother would have had aborted in a heartbeat without realizing the life and joy that they can still embrace despite their disabilities. However, Solondz shoots himself in the foot by throwing in unnecessary details such as the family’s insistence on referring to their breakfast as “Freedom toast” (simply to make them look dopey) and having the father (and possibly Mama Sunshine herself) involved with the violent fringe of the pro-life movement by planning the assassination of an abortionist (inevitably the one who botched Aviva’s operation).

As for the conceit of having alternate performers playing Aviva, it comes off as nothing more than a gimmick designed to inspire more snarky laughs–after being on the road for a long time, the 400-pound incarnation of Aviva is told, “You look like you could use some home cooking.” The only one that makes any sense comes at the end of Aviva’s journey, where she is played by an appropriately drawn and haggard Jennifer Jason Leigh, who genuinely appears as if she is trapped in a horrible and confusing odyssey for which she realizes there is no escape–I speculate that these scenes were shot immediately after the first script reading.

Even though I have pretty much loathed everything Solondz has produced, with the exception of the first half of “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and most of “Happiness” (mostly because of the performances, respectively, of Heather Matarazzo and Dylan Baker), I do admire his willingness to create films that inspire such loathing. There is never the sense that he is trying to satisfy audiences or financiers with neat and tidy stories that merely reconfirm whatever notions they already had going into the theater. In other words, I love the idea that someone like Todd Solondz is out there making movies–I just wish he would come up with a film that was worthy of the passion and energy that he devotes to them. The problem with “Palindromes” is that the reviews and discussions about it are far more thoughtful and coherent than the film that inspired them

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