A decade after his official debut, Todd Solondz remains locked inside the dollhouse, which is fitting since he prefers the company of puppets. Following the "Fuck-you" letter to critics that was Storytelling, his new sweaty-palm orgy Palindromes continues his ping-pong discourse with viewers. "You hate your characters." "No, I love them." "You have only contempt." "Not contempt, compassion." And so on and on. Directors can say whatever they want, but the screen holds the final word, and Solondz's work, despite lip service about underdog politics, is hermetically queasy, passive-aggressive in its directorial cruelty, and passionately antihuman. Aviva (Hebrew for "springtime," Portuguese for "the living one," and, of course, a palindrome, spelled the same forward and backward) takes the battered crown of torns from cousin Dawn Wiener, the miserable preteen heroine of Welcome to the Dollhouse and St. Wiener Dog of All Agonizing Nerds in Solondz's world. That Palindromes kicks off with Dawn's funeral marks the director's conscious crushing of audiences who thought, Oh she's going to blossom into a lovely young woman. Aviva now has to step up to the plate for Solondz's arrows and endure his arid misanthropy and monotonous close-up technique.
To keep himself amused (and rip-off Bu˝uel), Solondz has decided to have his ambulatory dartboard played by eight performers of varying ages, shapes, colors and sizes, from tiny lisper to chubby brunette to stringy redhead to obese black woman to girlish boy -- all united by name and by the dippy, flatlining line-reading that Solondz's instructed to equate innocence with stupidity. It would be more difficult to have one actress play the character all the way through, since that would mean the director would have to deal with Aviva as a human being rather than a preconceived concept, the hypothesis in a thesis of hate. Anyway, at 13, she manages to get herself pregnant by another lumpish teen and bullied into abortion by her parents (Ellen Barkin and Richard Masur) before taking to the open road, populated by the by-now trademarked Solondzian panoply of pervs, mouth-breathers and assorted cartoons. Her main detour is into the pastoral Jesus-lovin' commune of Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk), where an array of variously disabled children are lumped into a beaming, singing Brady Bunch, complete with faux-'N Synch Samaritan interludes. It's not long before Aviva, branded a "child whore," gets kicked out of this derisive Eden and sent on her merry way, floating down a river boat with mock-lyricism or anally probed by pedophile trucker Stephen Adly Guirgis ("Can I still get pregnant if it goes in there?")
Voltaire, Twain... Solondz? The Candide and Huckleberry Finn references sprinkled throughout, coming from such a petty talent, are as absurd as the Chekhovian aspirations courted by the three-sisters structure of Happiness, though Palindromes prefers the fable format, the better to yank the freaks 'n' geeks loathing up to epic levels. Along with Neil LaBute, Solondz is my least favorite working filmmaker, both spawned out of the mid-'90s Misery for the Cameras Sundance boom, both reveling in viewer discomfort, and both brilliantly adept at giving the impression of uncompromisingly confronting Ugly Truths while actually reducing life to grotesque flea circuses. The difference is that, while LaBute gawks from behind his spuriously moralist glass panel, Solondz can't help but tie himself to the stake next to his cowlike martyrs, so that all the free-flowing hatred turns inwards, right back at him. The day-glo kiddie bedrooms captured in grainy long takes remain his private therapy on film, and in case subtlety ain't your bag, the director's hand materializes onscreen as Dawn's older brother (Matthew Farber), letting Aviva (this round incarnated by a worn-looking Jennifer Jason Leigh) in on his philosophy on life: "People always end up the way they start out... We're all robots programmed arbitrarily by nature's genetic code." Thanks for the tip, Todd. Now go inhale some paint thinner.
Substitute Solondz's down-to-the-last-bit-player prurience in Happiness for bigotry, and out of the oven pops Crash. When, near the beginning, a gun salesman calls Persian store owner Shaun Toub "Osama" to his face, Paul Haggis' pressure-cooker mishmash trades examining racial unrest for wadding in white-liberal fantasy -- racism in real life is so much more stealthily insidious. Not that any of the people in the film's connect-the-dolts sprawl could tell the difference, since, as plainclothes cop Don Cheadle murmurs in the first scene, people in L.A. lack human connection, and "we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something." Acknowledging the need for connection, or at least acknowledging the rupture, is a more than noble cause, though in Haggis' view, this wake-up call ends up ultimately as reductive as one of Solondz's creep fests. Toub and Cheadle are just two of the cogs in the film's overworking dramaturgy: others weaving in and out of the can't-we-all-just-get-along latticework include ambitious D.A. Brendan Fraser and pissed-off wife Sandra Bullock, who get carjacked by Chris "Ludacris" Bridges and Larenz Tate; racist cop Matt Dillon, who feels up mouthy society wife Thandie Newton, to the impotent horror of her hubby (Terrence Howard) and his rookie partner (Ryan Philippe); and tender locksmith and resident Hispanic angel Michael Pena, who shrugs off daily racism to take care of his tiny daughter.
The sick-soul-of-Los-Angeles format goes at least as far back as Welcome to L.A., though the movie's main templates are Short Cuts and Magnolia -- funny how transparent the contrived mechanisms get once shorn of Altman's politicized exploration or Anderson's kineticism. Its insistence on a Kieslowskian interconnectedness in the land of the Watts, Rodney King and O.J. Simpson flames, further reinforced by the occasional Olympian overhead shot, is sanctimoniously comforting, thus Haggis' relentless barrage of blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, and Persians spitting venom at each other has already led most critics by the hand into hailing it as a brutally honest, transcendental work. It's easy to understand the raves: the dramatic tidiness of Crash dovetails the soap operatic strands into a facile contemporary j'accuse without ever addressing how race plays into the ideologies that enforce an oppressive order. Nobody gets challenged, nothing gets questioned -- prejudice here is a human "given," neatly excusing viewers (reviewers in particular) from any real self-examination. Haggis, making his directing debut (he adapted Million Dollar Baby, though none of Eastwood's artisan-grace has rubbed off), aims a hammer at our racial (hence political, hence spiritual) complacency, but the results are comfily neutered, not worth a frame of Burnett's scandalously forgotten The Glass Shield, a far more bruising study of how deep racism runs.
Reviewed May 19, 2005.