Welcome to the Suckfest

04/12/2005 2:00 PM |

Directed by Todd Solondz
Palindromes are words that mean the same thing spelled forward and backward. Palindromes is also a shockingly bad movie by Todd Solondz. I’ve always been a huge fan of his films and have defended them to critics of his signature style. Welcome to the Dollhouse was a beautiful little statement about growing up uncool in America. Happiness in all its cringe-inducing detail blew me away. And Storytelling, as self-conscious as it sometimes got still hit its mark a lot of the time …but this one… Let’s see what Solondz himself says about it.
“I wondered what would happen if I cast a number of different types of people as one character, a character who is wholly sympathetic. My fear was it would come across as too much of an intellectual exercise, a show-offy, but pointless trick, and alienate the audience.”
His fears are well founded. The film begins at the funeral of Dawn Weiner (his Dollhouse character) and it soon becomes clear he is burying that type of narratively cohesive film along with its universally beloved loser. In light of what he’s done since then you get the sense he’s uncomfortable with the facile appreciation heaped on his debut and still recoiling from its praise. This time he’s out to really challenge his audience. And he succeeds ­— but at the expense of the film itself.
õAviva ö
Aviva first appears to us as a young black girl waking up in the middle of the night, afraid she’ll “end up like Dawn.” Mom reassures her that she has nothing to worry about — Dawn was overweight and had bad skin…
õAviva ö
…Now Aviva is a chubby adolescent white girl. She visits an equally awkward teenage boy and tries to get pregnant, a desire which drives her away from her cloudy parents and into the arms of a group of sunny anti-abortionists.
õAviva ö
The next Aviva is a pale, redheaded girl with frightened eyes cowering before her parents’ reaction to her pregnancy. Dad approaches her locked bedroom door with soothing tones at first, which, once unheeded, gust into a ferocious, terrifying patriarchal roar. It’s a classic Solondz moment told from the point of view of a put-upon adolescent — a scene bursting with empathy but short on insight.
And with each new incarnation of Aviva, the point of this whole intellectual exercise becomes harder to grasp and the energy of the film flickers like a slowly extinguishing flame. Swapping actors to play a lead character while all other elements remain the same is ballsy enough, but Solondz pulls out so many stylistic conceits that he’s creatively overdrawn before the film is 10 minutes old.
õAviva ö
A new Aviva stands by the side of the road hitching a ride, looking like a suburban mall tart. She’s picked up by a troubled trucker who takes her to a motel, screws her in the wrong place (anatomically) and this being a Todd Solondz movie, ditches her in the middle of nowhere — because people suck. Which seems to be the message of this and every Solondz story. Inevitably his main characters are catatonically passive receptacles for abuse at the hands of repressed adults.
õAviva ö
Aviva is now a young androgynous boy silhouetted against the horizon, wordlessly drifting down a Tom Sawyer river. But devoid of context the scene’s impact dissipates like mist.
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Hey look! Now Aviva is a big black lady looking like a beached whale by the banks of a river. And you know what, Solondz is right. Somehow I see a character differently whether it’s played by a 10- year-old androgynous boy, or a 300-pound black woman… It’s what I’d call the “No Shit Sherlock” effect. Aviva is then rescued by the world’s most
annoying boy who proceeds to introduce her to Mama Sunshine and her household of limping, stuttering poster children for creepy Christian right-to-life morality. And in the end it’s the same old story: either you find limbless little girls singing about Jesus funny or you just don’t.
õAviva ö
Teen tart Aviva returns in time for the abortion doctor assassination plot. And miraculously, the story’s emotional intensity returns and we actually care about what happens to her… (Hey, wait a minute, was that the point all along? Fuck you Solondz! It’s too late now.)
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Returning home she’s come full circle, yet Aviva has changed. I’ll say she has — now she’s Jennifer Jason Leigh! Dawn Weiner’s brother Mark articulates the film’s theme with a clarity so elusive in the film itself. Palindromes are words that mean the same thing spelled forward and backward. And people, he argues are equally immutable. Solondz again:
“To accept one’s inability to change can be a form of consolation….there may be a sense of doom, but there is also the possibility of grace.”
This grace, to counter the doom and adolescent sulk permeating this film, is what’s missing. And an eccentric style has become an annoying stylistic tic saying more about the filmmaker’s self-lacerating persona than the objects of his scorn.
Opens April 15
 Jason Bogdaneris