Lost in the Laboratory
Palindromes, directed by Todd Solondz
Todd Solondz has always given the viewer something akin to a routine dental checkup. There’s the nice comfortable seat and the pleasant massaging of your gums while you can’t really figure out what’s going on. Then there’s the uncomfortable scraping between your teeth that sometimes hurts, followed by the strange feeling on the inside top of your mouth that tickles in a weird way, making you smile when you don’t want to. Then while the sweetly chemical fluoride treatment renders you mute, you feel like you’ve been mildly invaded that day. All in all, I find such checkups to be pleasant yet somewhat disturbing experiences and always look forward to them. But Palindromes, the new film from the maker of the brilliant Happiness, is a bit more like a minor cavity being filled.
The title seems to refer to opposite, but similarly destructive, perspectives on dealing with birth and abortion experienced by the main protagonist, an adolescent girl. She gets pregnant, and her New Jersey parents force her into an abortion that renders her sterile; she runs away and ends up with a born-again “family” full of a diverse range of cripples. The family is run by antichoice terrorists who plan to murder doctors who perform abortions. The yarn spins from there, with a series of coincidences that have tragic endings. You know you’re watching Solondz when a huge black woman meets up with a little bespectacled kid and they walk into a scene with a blind albino and a dwarf hanging laundry. The scenes of the born-again family performing Christian songs like a boy band (complete with headsets) are a South Park episode come to life.
But here’s the thing: Solondz, to his credit, experiments with the lead character. Maybe experiment is too soft a word. Throughout the film, five (or is it eight?) different actresses of different races, ages, and girths (including a particularly rough-around-the-edges Jennifer Jason Leigh) play the adolescent girl. I don’t usually read director’s notes, but in this case I felt it was necessary (a bad sign). Solondz talks about “how it’s interesting that sex, age, race, etc. play so limited a part in determining the degree in which a character is sympathetic... so I wondered what would happen if I cast a number of different types of people as one character, a character who is wholly sympathetic.” Fair enough, but the problem, as with many experiments, is that it’s confusing. You don’t know who is who, and you’re distracted from Solondz’s talents at writing offbeat dialogue and creating quirky characters; also lost are the implicit commentaries on American suburbia, with all of its judgmental hypocrisy, that made Happiness a classic. As my dad used to say: “I’m all for experimentation. Just not experimenting solely for the sake of experimenting.” I couldn’t agree with him more.