'Palindromes': Caricature Lineup, From Right to Left

Aviva (here played by Shayna Levine) wants to be a mom and confides in Earl (Stephen Adly Guirgis) in
Aviva (here played by Shayna Levine) wants to be a mom and confides in Earl (Stephen Adly Guirgis) in "Palindromes." (By Macall Polay -- Wellspring Via Associated Press)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 29, 2005

Maybe there are two kinds of people in the world, those who think Todd Solondz has something new to tell us about the human condition and those who don't.

In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that this critic falls into the latter camp. Since making a promising, even astonishing debut with the darkly funny "Welcome to the Dollhouse" in 1995, Solondz has become something of a self-appointed Cassandra of suburban angst, peeling back the veil on bourgeois complacency to reveal the toxic human goop that lies beneath. With "Happiness," "Storytelling" and now with "Palindromes," he has presumably sought to shake the audience out of its self-induced stupor and confront viewers with such ugly realities as pedophilia, racism, compulsive self-delusion and moral hypocrisy.

Does anyone out there need reminding that those things exist? And, more to the point, is Solondz shedding genuinely new light on them? In "Palindromes," he tackles the war over abortion, skewering both the anti-abortion and pro-choice sides with equal-opportunity venom. But, as he did in his two previous movies, Solondz presents his characters as such exaggerated monsters that they don't resemble human beings as much as helplessly squirming specimens under his poison-tipped probe.

In a nasty private cinematic joke, Solondz chooses to open his new film with a mordant nod to his first one, at the funeral of "Dollhouse's" hapless heroine, Dawn Wiener. Solondz is too cruel -- he might say realistic -- an artist to ordain a happy outcome for Dawn, who was one of the contemporary cinema's greatest sad sacks. Overweight and depressed, she's committed suicide, and not even her brother Mark (Matthew Faber) has much of anything to say about her. But after the service, her 13-year-old cousin Aviva is haunted by Dawn's fate, and worries to her mother, Joyce (Ellen Barkin), that she'll come to the same end. Joyce comforts her by assuring Aviva that she's thinner, has better skin and is truly loved by her parents -- advantages that Dawn clearly, and fatally, lacked.

But still, Aviva worries and she sublimates her anxieties in one overwhelming desire: to become a mother. "Palindromes" follows Aviva (a palindrome, spelled the same backward and forward) as she gets pregnant, is forced by her mother to get an abortion, and embarks on a weird odyssey during which she is raped by a truck driver and is taken in by a fundamentalist Christian family. Throughout the film, in what might be Solondz's only genuine innovation, Aviva is played by seven actresses and one young actor, each bringing an eerie similarity to the character even as she takes on different ages, races, physical types and genders. The filmmaker's point, expressed by his alter-ego Mark Wiener in a speech he delivers to the Aviva played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, is that we can't escape our essential selves. Nature will triumph over nurture every time. We'll be the same, whether we're spelled backward or forward.

It's an interesting proposition and even good material for a film. But Solondz portrays his characters with such unbridled contempt that "Palindromes" feels more like a mere exercise in misanthropy rather than cutting-edge social satire or psychological speculation. Especially offensive is the film's longest sequence, in which the wonderful Sharon Wilkins plays Aviva as an overweight black woman. The Christian foster mother who adopts her is named Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), a compulsively cheerful hausfrau who takes in disabled kids with a beatific vengeance. Solondz portrays the household as a grotesque tableau, in which the kids keep up the appearance of giddy devotion to God and Mama while she recruits them to search for aborted fetuses in a nearby dump. On the other side of the cultural divide, Joyce doesn't fare much better; her soliloquy to Aviva about her early abortion is a fatuous litany of cynicism and solipsism.

They're all sick, Solondz seems to be saying, and none of them really sees Aviva, backward or forward. The same point was made before, and better, by Alexander Payne in his own astonishing debut, the 1996 comedy "Citizen Ruth." But in Payne's far more generous satire, self-righteousness and sanctimony don't reflect pathology as much as weakness. There's little doubt that Solondz sympathizes with his heroine, as much as he can be seen to be sympathizing with anybody. The trick he hasn't mastered is to extend the same courtesy to characters whose motives are not so pure. As a director, Solondz seems to have his own locked-in fate -- to favor caricature over compassion -- and his movies are the worse for it.

Palindromes (100 minutes, at Landmark's Bethesda Row and E Street and Cineplex Odeon Shirlington) is not rated. It contains adult themes and brief sexual material.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company