April 29, 2005

Solondz's Palindromes is a work of outrage—and art

It's a real testament to Todd Solondz's filmmaking genius that I loved his latest, Palindromes (opening today at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema), because the first thing we see onscreen in the movie is a title card reading "In loving memory of Dawn Wiener."

Who is Dawn Wiener? Only my favorite character from the cinema ever, introduced in Solondz's film debut, Welcome to the Dollhouse (he directed one before that called Fear, Anxiety, & Depression that he's since disowned). We learn that Dawn had grown obese, developed an excruciating dermatological condition, and (possibly) killed herself as a result of her impregnation during a date rape rather than "bring another Dawn into the world."

OK, it should be clear by now that Palindromes isn't going to be the feel-good movie of the year. That's fine, since there are plenty of superlatives it earns in comparison to this year's other releases—and one of them just may be "best."

Palindromes is daring, audacious, honest, trenchantly funny, and unforgettable. It leaves no one unscathed in its path: not the right, not the left, not Christians, not atheists, and certainly not its main character, Aviva, played by eight different actors total—two black, six white, seven female, one male, all excellent.

Aviva wants to have a baby. She doesn't want to die alone like her cousin, Dawn, and feels that being a mother will redeem her. So she loses her virginity to a family friend, Judah, and becomes pregnant—but is ordered to have an abortion by her well-meaning yet generally clueless suburban Supermom, Joyce Victor (a spot-on Ellen Barkin).

Does Aviva go through with it? I won't reveal any more plot details, because one of the joys of the film is that nothing is quite what it seems. This includes Mama Sunshine (theater veteran Debra Monk) and her odd family, whom Aviva befriends.

Mama Sunshine is an evangelical who brags about leading a young Muslim boy away from his faith and makes herself unthreatening to the point of creepiness. She presides over a household of "God's children"—all adopted, since she presumed no one else would want them.

All sorts of afflictions are present in her family: albinism, dwarfism, Down's syndrome, attention-deficit disorder, and the aforementioned Islam (which, for this family, may as well be a disability). They gather around the dinner table to make impossibly unhip jokes and to discuss their musical group, the Sunshine Singers, which tours the church circuit and makes appearances on The 700 Club.

But what point, precisely, is Solondz trying to make about Mama Sunshine and her Singers? I'm not sure, because his treatment of them on film is not nearly as critical as my summary suggests. Still, I think he's satirizing the conformity of our pop-Christianity culture, while leaving just enough room for doubt to remain interesting. Palindromes offers no easy answers, and that's the key to its brave appeal: in today's partisan world, it caters to no one.

Palindromes isn't perfect. Solondz's dialogue can veer toward didacticism (early in the film, Judah delivers what may as well be Palindromes' mission statement: "People are unreliable. They have no faith.") He name-drops bands like *NSYNC and brands like Häagen-Dazs when he wants to be irreverent, but this only dates him. I can't help but remember little Timmy and his Tamagotchi in Solondz's second film, Happiness. Seven years later, does anyone even remember what a Tamagotchi is?

Solondz includes several scenes about pedophilia that will make you squirm. I almost included this above—in Palindromes' list of flaws—but, hey, what's a Todd Solondz movie without pedophilia? It's like an Esther Williams movie without swimming. Or a Ginger Rogers movie without the dancing.

All kidding aside—and I realize that this is not a joking matter—there are times when Solondz seems weirdly ambivalent about the criminal status of pedophiles. The only person, perhaps, to truly connect with Aviva on her journey is a convicted pedophile, who has too many aliases to recount here ("Bob" and "Earl" are among them). Stephen Adly Guirgis's brave performance recalls Dylan Baker's unflinching one in Happiness, where he played—what else?—a pedophile. One of the final scenes of the film finds the final Aviva (Jennifer Jason Leigh) defending her cousin against child molestation charges, but it hardly feels like an endorsement. Someone as nihilistic as him could not be guilty, she decides, because "pedophiles love children"—suggesting, of course, that her cousin is not capable of love at all.

Yikes! "Pedophiles love children?" Yep, you read that right. Palindromes is a movie that will make your head spin and your skin crawl. If this doesn't read like praise, it's only because I'm not recounting the themes of the film accurately, or that this is impossible to do in such a short review. Palindromes may stir up criticism among the Mama Sunshine set, but it's a bold, important work of art, hardly comparable to other insipid endorsements of child molestation I've read recently (George Carlin in When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?: "Give [Michael Jackson] some kids and let him dance.")

A Todd Solondz movie is an experience unlike any other, and Palindromes is his best yet. (Close call: Welcome to the Dollhouse works almost as well, but on a smaller scale.) It's not for the easily offended or squeamish or politically correct or unadventurous or people who dislike movies that don't star Ben Stiller or Jennifer Aniston. It's for people who want to feel something, even if it's only outrage.

Palindromes is a tough sell, and it's going to upset a lot of people. Those people need to watch it again, and ask themselves what's more offensive: the presence of adult themes in a movie tailored for adults, or a movie that's after only our hard-earned cash and submission for two hours. Todd Solondz has never played by the rules, and he never will. His Palindromes is a masterpiece. Even if he does kill Dawn.