Palindromes (2004)

reviewed by
David N. Butterworth

A film review by David N. Butterworth
Copyright 2005 David N. Butterworth
**1/2 (out of ****)

Palindromes, those words and phrases that read the same backwards as forwards--radar, madam, a Toyota, able was I ere I saw Elba, etc.--is also the name of New Jersey filmmaker Todd Solondz's latest film. One surmises it's called "Palindromes" because of its central conceit that no matter how we try to change ourselves--via breast implants, nose jobs, overeating, bulimia, botox, liposuction, or some other measure, drastic or not--we're still ourselves, inside if not out, backwards as well as forwards.

This theme is played out in full by having the film's central figure, an unfortunate and decidedly unplucky teenager named Aviva (a palindrome in and of herself), played by various actors of various sizes, shapes, and colors (not to mention "appropriate" age and gender) along the way. It's an odd gimmick but it's a gimmick that works well, oddly enough.

That, and another of the film's characters, one Mark Wiener (Matthew Faber), brother of the late Dawn Wiener (aka Wienerdog of Solondz's earlier and most successful effort to date, the caustic "Welcome to the Dollhouse"), corroborates this is an insincere but not altogether unwelcome speech towards the end of the film, when the writer/director's intentions finally bubble forth. These intentions, coupled with the cutesy caption boards that effectively introduce each character in the drama, a drama dealing with issues of teen pregnancy, abortion, inferiority, morality, and loneliness through the conduit of a young woman's drive to procreate, make for an intriguing and challenging--if not wholly successful--film.

"Palindromes" is unsuccessful, in part, because it's underdeveloped as a project: the writing is hit and miss and the acting is grossly uneven. This last category applies as much to the individual performers who portray the likes of Judah, Huckleberry, and Henrietta-- some are halfway decent, some are not--as it does to Ellen Barkin ("She Hate Me," "Someone Like You..."), who plays Aviva's mother Joyce Victor. Barkin is shockingly bad in her first scene in the film yet later on seems more in control of her character's petty perturbances.

Fortunately there are enough charismatic performances to offset Barkin's rush of blood to the head including Debra Monk, who's a delight as Mama Sunshine, the born-again Christian who populates her Kansas ranch with a typical Solondz-fest of misfits, miscreants, and misanthropes.

Like "Vera Drake," another recent film to deal with the taboo subject of abortion, "Palindromes" doesn't take a pat stance on the issue but offers us conflicted heroes and villains, allowing the viewer to apply their own thinking to the thorny circumstances.

It's a common enough conception that most filmmakers have only one good film in them and that everything else is simply a variation on that winning theme. That seems especially true of "Palindromes," with Solondz's latest familial preoccupation once again echoing--but never quite achieving--the relative strengths and successes of "'Dollhouse."

While less disquieting, perhaps, and not quite as tasteless or edgy as Solondz's previous turns at bat, "Palindromes" should still be viewed with the following forewarning: everything--like Aviva's immediate, extended, adopted, and anticipated future family--is relative.

David N. Butterworth

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