Todd Solondz is exploring mankind’s ugliness again, only this time I’m not sure why.
I got it with “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” “Happiness” and “Storytelling.” Those movies, despite focusing on such unpleasant topics as pedophilia and rape, were — and I hesitate to use this word — entertaining. Solondz is a provocateur, but he’s usually a funny one, wringing shocked laughter from an audience too stunned to fight back.
But his new film, “Palindromes,” isn’t especially funny, nor is it even outrageously shocking. The world has changed since 1995, when Solondz made “Dollhouse.” More than ever, things like “South Park” are making us realize that ANYTHING can be used for laughs. A story about a 13-year-old girl who desperately wants to have a baby barely raises an eyebrow in 2005.
The girl is named Aviva, and she is a cousin of Dawn Wiener, the protagonist of “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” Dawn has committed suicide at the outset of the current film, and Aviva expresses fears that she will turn out like her — obese, drugged-out, and pregnant. Her mother (Ellen Barken) allays her fears, telling her she’ll never be like Dawn because she and Aviva’s father love her, which Dawn’s parents didn’t. Fair enough.
While visiting family friends, Aviva clumsily, childishly seduces their young teenage son Judah (Robert Agri) and gets pregnant. Her parents enforce an abortion, however, and before long Aviva has run away, looking for more opportunities to get pregnant.
In her part-Dickens, part-Twain travels from New Jersey to the Midwest, Aviva winds up at the home of Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), a sort of halfway house for misfit children: an albino, a blind girl, an epileptic, one with Down syndrome, and so forth. Mama Sunshine and her husband (Walter Bobbie) are evangelical Christians, and the kids all perform in a Christian rock band, loving each and every moment of it. Aviva feels their love but doesn’t belong in such a place.
I have not told you who plays Aviva, and this is because she is played by eight different actresses, a different one for each segment of the film. She is black twice, obese once, and Jennifer Jason Leigh once. Most of these actresses were clearly chosen for their physical characteristics rather than their acting ability; the Aviva during the Mama Sunshine segment is excruciatingly dull, and if the child actress who plays her in the first scene is any good normally, she certainly does not have the chops to handle Solondz’s mouthy, erudite language.
The film’s typically pessimistic message is stated by Aviva’s cousin Mark (Matthew Feber), an alleged pedophile. “People always end up the way they started,” he says. “They think they change, but they don’t.”
Well, that’s awfully charming, Solondz, but what’s your point? So much of “Palindromes” isn’t funny — not because it’s trying and failing, but because it isn’t trying. It seems to have other things on its mind besides comedy, which means Solondz has overlooked what made his other films work. It wasn’t their outrageous ideas; those were merely a part of it. It’s because they were entertaining. “Palindromes” is mildly interesting, but it examines humanity’s hypocrisy and stupidity in not nearly so amusing a fashion as Solondz has done before.
C (1 hr., 40 min.; )