327) Palindromes (2004) Dir: Todd Solondz Date Released: April 2005 Date Seen: October 6, 2009 Rating: 2.75/5
The argument in favor of Todd Solondz's method of storytelling usually goes something like this: though his films are soaked through and through with alienating pessimism that elicits chortles from caricatures of immoral behavior, they do so out of a perverse love for his seriously-screwed-up characters. It's an argument that Solondz himself wants you to take home so badly that he has Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), his stand-in Storytelling (2001) come right out and say it. Oxman is a nebbish documentary filmmaker following the life of Scooby (Mark Webber), an airhead high-school drop-out. No matter how heart-felt and open Oxman thinks he's being to Scooby and his family, when he's eventually confronted by an angry, newly self-aware Scooby, he must face the fact that he's been exploiting his subject for his work. That conclusion is Solondz's way of directly telling his detractors that he understands and agrees with them that his methods of fictive, rhetorical argument, where a character's weaknesses, not flaws, define them, is of course the artist's declaration of frustration with his own limited abilities.
But it's also a statement of intention, one that tells us that his films are not interested in delving into a tactful study of morality. Instead, they attempt to engage instead of exorcise his characters' demons as an open-ended parable might. They are the opposite of Rohmer's "Moral Tales" as they are not interested in the consequences of immoral behavior such much as amoral behavior, or the way that absolute standards fail the protagonists that cling to them in their moments of personal crisis.
Palindromes is in that sense another of Solondz's "Amoral Tales,"* a film that addresses the possibility of whether or not a character in trouble can or even really wants to change. It confronts the viewer with stereotypes not to shock but to allow us to see how characters that have become types--the Christian do-gooder vs. the concerned, pro-life parent--project personal beliefs that are intrinsically at odds with the situation at hand: Aviva, a teenage girl, wants to have a baby. None of her guardians, not her surrogate mother nor her biological one, try to seriously engage with that simple truth but rather assume that what they want is what's best for her, making her personal wishes as irrelevant.
As in his other films, Palindromes' focus on Aviva's struggle to escape the film's putdown of a (a)moral--"People don't change," as the film's Solondz avatar says right before trailing off into nervous fuming--is inherently pointed. But, like Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Solondz's other lesser film which he cites at Palindromes' beginning with a funeral for its main protagonist, it's a little too on the nose and consistently bland. Aviva tries to imagine herself as different people throughout the movie, as exhibited by Solondz's gimmick of having her portrayed by various different actresses of differing body types and ages, in order to become confident in her decisions. The film's events are grounded in her POV as opposed to most of Solondz's other films, where we we at least get some tangential asides into the lives and the blackly comic emotional anguish of the film's bevy of supporting characters. Here, it's all Aviva all the time and she can't change, remember? Some good context as usual but not enough to really make the film worth remembering on its own terms.
*Patent pending, natch.