Todd Solondz is one of those talented writer/directors whose work I don't personally like, but I'll watch nonetheless. (Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson are two others.) Maybe it's because I keep hoping he will finally make a film that truly speaks to me. Or maybe I'm just maintaining my cultural literacy.
Known for his sadistic storylines, Solondz opens his latest film with the funeral of his Welcome to the Dollhouse heroine, Dawn Wiener, who has committed suicide. Killing off the character that endeared him to art house audiences should give you an idea of what to expect here. (Having seen his films Happiness and Storytelling should do that too.) What follows is the story of Dawn's lonely cousin Aviva – her name just one of the film's many palindromes – and her decision, at thirteen, to get pregnant. Her controlling mother (Ellen Barkin, quite good) whisks her off to an abortion clinic against her will, and thus begin Aviva's hapless adventures.
The gimmick behind Palindromes is that Solondz cast seven different actors – well, technically eight – in the role of Aviva. In an interview, he claimed that he was inspired to try this because during the casting process, he often finds several actors perfect for a role, and hates having to choose just one. I've been there, and I agree with him. But whereas four of the Avivas are actual white teenage girls – presumably the four actresses who auditioned the best – the other three are played by an obese black woman, a young male actor, and Jennifer Jason Leigh. The director has his reasons, which I'll go into later, but the latter three choices don't suggest diversity so much as contrivance.
I've finally nailed down the problem I have with Solondz: In his last three features, he keeps taking the stance that he is Saying Something About Real Life, when in truth he is merely reacting to traditional notions of story and character arc. In short, he's rebelling not against society, but against other filmmakers. Thus, his worldview is less relevant than he thinks. And I'll never forget what my friend Rob said about Happiness: that Solondz's work is actually sentimental – only the sentiment here is misery. That he populates his work with the handicapped, the physically ugly, and the morally repugnant (when in doubt, Solondz always throws in a child molester) tells me that he is lazily relying on shock value to drive his points home. (Did I mention that Palindromes is about anti-abortionists?)
I really do think Todd Solondz is talented, and I am never bored by his work. But I also think he busies himself with sophomoric "The world sucks!" declarations and avoids exploring the gray areas of real life. Palindromes is, in some ways, his strongest film, with several excellent moments, but he beats us over the head with his "palindrome" theme by the third act – in character names, in story structure, even in room numbers on the doors – because it's all supposed to mean that everybody ends up just like they started, no matter how much they insist they change. (Dawn Wiener's brother expresses this idea explicitly.) This is the apparent rationale behind the multiple casting of Aviva: the more she changes, the more she stays the same. But Solondz needs to trust his audience more. We get the point, Todd. You don't need to keep reminding us every ten minutes.