Jesus Loves Me, Todd Doesn't

Wiener boy strikes back: Matthew Faber in 'Palindromes'

Todd Solondz's Palindromes is one long solo on the joy buzzer. Solondz crowds the frame with freaks and geeks and feigns to extend compassion, but cheats by giving his straw men gag lines that explode in their faces like Daffy Duck's cigar. The maker of Happiness and Storytelling, Solondz has become a drive-time shock jock in decline, pushing envelopes that never should have been sent. What sets Palindromes apart from the rest of his abject oeuvre is its two-facedness: The movie's jism-encrusted, wood-paneled rec rooms carry the reek of mendacity.

Our heroine, Aviva, is a barely pubescent girl in an upper-middle-class Jewish family who's impregnated by a pudgy preteen. When she wants to keep the baby--"Because then there'll be somebody that'll always love me!"--her mother (Ellen Barkin) insists that the fetal tissue be removed. In an outré stroke designed to recall antiabortion propaganda, Aviva is rendered sterile by the procedure, thus voiding her life's desire to become a sunny grove of fertility. (Aviva's hysterectomy is revealed in woozy, in-and-out-of-focus shots that seem to reflect her post-op point of view. But another cruel tidbit reveals she has no idea she's barren.)

Aviva runs away from home and tumbles through the looking glass into a torture chamber--Jeeziss-lovin' hayseeds, greasy-fingered child molesters, and grinning mongoloids all around--that seems to have been devised by Marilyn Manson. (Neither the blue states nor the red have any purchase on decency or compassion.) In the final scene, the raisonneur--the allegedly child-molesting brother of Dawn Wiener from Solondz's Welcome to the Dollhouse--delivers the death blow: We are what we're born to be, he essentially says, and can never be one whit better, smarter, more spiritually evolved; we're like undulating cilia at the bottom of the sea, briefly snorkeling in some filthy nutrition before decaying onto the cosmic compost heap.

Solondz's choice to cast seven different actresses as Aviva, a saintly naïf who traverses a landscape of moral abscess, suggests that the Bard of the Garden State longs to be an American Buñuel. But Buñuel had no use for taboo-busting, hand-over-mouth titters: His Sadean picaresques play as if he couldn't care less how you react to them. Solondz, on the other hand, puts us through an elaborate and pointlessly punishing series of trials. What's mendacious about Palindromes is its pretense toward compassion for characters it actually reviles. Take the movie's signature scene: a group of developmentally disabled children performing a power-pop ballad called "This Is the Way (That Jesus Made Us)." When pressed, Solondz will say that the scene combines grotesquerie with tenderness for the children's naive joy. But, in the absence of humanizing close-ups, the tone is uncertain at best, nauseating at worst.

Palindromes is a trap. If we don't laugh at a disabled kid singing about Jesus or a red-state mom with a commemorative poster of the Twin Towers on her bedroom wall or a fat girl listening to a "self-esteem lecture" on her iPod, then we're uncool. But if we do laugh, we're soulless, age-of-irony hipsters who can't appreciate Solondz's furtive empathy with the misbegotten. The only appropriate response to Palindromes is the whimper of pain emitted by a rat that's being jolted with electric shocks.

Solondz has been undone by reality TV culture: The pinheads from whom he recoils could be prime-time heroes or guests on Jay Leno's couch. Peer-group humiliation is no longer shocking; indeed, it's the basic formula for every hunk of kicked-off-the-island schlock. The filmmaker's fallback plan is to turn the indignities suffered by the picked-on and despised into a cosmic statement of the existential condition--Mark Wiener's absurd speech about how we're "robots programmed by our own DNA." One leaves Palindromes shrunken and depleted, pondering a single, slight thought: Is Mark's monologue a cleaned-up version of Solondz's admission that he can't change?

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