**** (Masterpiece)

Directed and written by Todd Solondz

With Ellen Barkin, Stephen Adly Guirgis, Richard Masur, Debra Monk, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Shortin Wilkins

The other night, as a refresher course, I sat down and watched Todd Solondz’s Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Happiness (1998), and Storytelling (2001) all in a row. It’s a wonder I didn’t hang myself. His characters are so lonely, so unhappy, and so helplessly cruel to one another that as a group they make a convincing case that the human race is doomed. Among the people I spent my evening with were a suburban father who’s secretly a pedophile, a portly man who makes dirty phone calls to women, a Latina maid slaving away for a spoiled white family while her own son is executed, a white college student so consumed by liberal guilt that she lets a black professor sodomize her, and of course homely Dawn Wiener from Welcome to the Dollhouse, possibly the most hounded and wronged preteen in movie history, who responds to her junior high gauntlet of humiliation with a silent rage of epic proportions.

Like Preston Sturges, Solondz dearly loves his misfit children, and intimate encounters between them often crash past the barriers of misery into hilarity. No comic filmmaker in America today works so hard to stay on the knife’s edge between humor and pathos or is so eager to challenge his viewers emotionally. Irony has become a dirty word of late, but Solondz’s sense of irony verges on the symphonic. In Palindromes, his first film since Storytelling tanked at the box office, a young girl gets pregnant, submits to her mother’s demand for an abortion, and then runs away. Ultimately she lands at the rural home of a born-again couple who tend to a blissfully happy family of adopted handicapped children, but the new family hides an unpleasant secret too. Both pro-lifers and pro-choicers are viewed with horror, and–just to make the movie a little more commercial–Solondz has divided the lead role among eight actors, ranging from a six-year-old black girl to a teenage white boy to Jennifer Jason Leigh.

The movie opens with a challenge to Solondz’s fans: the funeral of Dawn Wiener, the beloved main character of his most popular movie, who has committed suicide. Solondz says he wanted to bring Dawn back in Storytelling and again in Palindromes but couldn’t persuade Heather Matarazzo, the young actress who won an Independent Spirit Award for playing her in Dollhouse, to reprise the role. (Matarazzo went on to become a sweetly geeky character player with roles in Saved! and The Princess Diaries. Perhaps, like Dawn, she too often found herself the object of kids chanting “Wiener Dog! Wiener Dog!”) The funeral is vintage Solondz, with Dawn’s brother, Mark (Matthew Faber), delivering a typically dour eulogy and subjecting the mourners to a tape of one of Dawn’s awful piano recitals. By closing the book on Dawn, Solondz signals his willingness to walk away from Dollhouse’s relatively accessible nerd comedy and into more unsettling and overtly political territory.

Replacing Dawn as protagonist is her innocent cousin Aviva, the only child of Steve and Joyce Victor (Richard Masur and Ellen Barkin). Played in the first scene by six-year-old Emani Sledge, Aviva wakes from a bad dream about Dawn, is comforted by her mother, and announces her intention to have lots of babies “because that way I would have lots of people to love.” Her own mother’s love turns out to be entirely conditional: when a teenage Aviva (Valerie Shusterov) gets pregnant and wants to keep the child, Joyce insists that she abort it, pleading, “It’s not a baby! Yet! It’s like it’s just a tumor!” Barkin is superb as Joyce, her warmth and tenderness giving way to anger and icy selfishness. She drags Aviva past a circle of pro-life demonstrators into a family planning clinic, and when the girl’s uterus is punctured during the operation, requiring a hysterectomy, Joyce’s gut response, dimly perceived by her daughter through an anesthetic haze, is “Now I’ll never have grandchildren!”

Stricken by this experience, Aviva (now played by Rachel Corr) runs away from home and becomes easy prey for Joe (Stephen Adly Guirgis), a chunky truck driver who calls himself born-again but wastes no time in spiriting the underage girl into a motel room for anal sex. Painfully naive and starved for love, Aviva sighs, “I never knew it was so beautiful.” Joe ditches her, and Aviva, as played by the amply proportioned Sharon Wilkins, is found sleeping in the woods by Peter Paul (Alexander Brickel), a young boy who brings her home to the aptly named Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk). Solondz has invoked The Wizard of Oz when talking about the theme of Palindromes–there’s no place like home–but Mama and Bo Sunshine’s adopted family is more like the Island of Misfit Toys: most of the children suffer from some congenital affliction, from blindness to missing limbs to Down syndrome. Yet the family is so perfectly loving that for Aviva their home is a paradise. The Sunshines serve as a rebuke not only to her chilly mother but also to Solondz’s mostly left-leaning core audience, who might be tempted to dismiss born-again Christians as idiots.

To some extent the Sunshines are idiots: their breakfast banquet includes heaping platters of “freedom toast,” and the kids collaborate on a Christian rock act called the Sunshine Singers, with prerecorded dance tracks to back their soaring harmonies and synchronized dance moves. Their production numbers are both funny and acutely uncomfortable: casting actors with real disabilities is nothing new, but collecting them into a horrendously tacky showbiz exercise can’t help bringing to mind Tod Browning’s 1932 circus story Freaks. I was a bit ashamed of myself for laughing–a combination of feelings that Solondz courts aggressively, though he avoids any taint of exploitation through his genuine tenderness toward the children. They’re so buoyant, so kind, and so accepting of one another that their Christianity seems worthy of celebration, and the thought of aborting any one of them, as Aviva’s mother surely would have, seems monstrous. It’s the most daring and emotionally complex joke of Solondz’s career, and I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

The Sunshine Singers may be Solondz’s Munchkins, but Palindromes returns to Kansas eventually, and readers who prefer not to know the movie’s ending should quit here. Aviva’s oasis of familial love is disrupted when the truck driver who took her to bed, now calling himself Earl, shows up at the Sunshine home for a sinister conference with Bo Sunshine and a right-to-life cell leader named Dr. Dan. Earl takes on an assignment to murder an abortionist in another city–as it turns out, the same doctor whose botched operation ended Aviva’s chances of becoming a mother. Aviva eavesdrops on this conspiracy and contacts Earl, and together they drive cross-country to assassinate the doctor. That operation is botched too, when Earl accidentally shoots the doctor’s young daughter along with the intended target. Instantly consumed by guilt and horror, Earl takes Aviva back to their hotel room, and when the red lights show up outside their window, he tells her his real name–Bob–then throws open the door to commit suicide by cop.

Guirgis gives the movie’s other standout performance as the conflicted trucker, whose righteous anger over abortion is fueled by his own sexual guilt. His mercurial identity–from Joe to Earl to Bob–is another version of the conundrum Solondz creates by splitting his lead character into eight pieces. Talking to the press at the Toronto film festival last fall, Solondz said that he sensed the same innocent quality in all eight actors and wondered if that shared essence would anchor the character throughout the story even as the role passed from one person to the next. As he explains in the movie’s press notes, the idea of a palindrome–something that reads the same forward and backward, like Aviva–provided an appropriate metaphor for that part of a person’s character that remains unchanged throughout life.

Like a palindrome, the movie ends where it begins–with the Wiener family–after Aviva (Jennifer Jason Leigh, whose familiarity to audiences puts her at a serious disadvantage here) has been returned to her parents. In Aviva’s absence, her cousin Mark Wiener has been accused of fondling a young boy, and at a family party Aviva is the only person who will talk to him. His predicament is both a reprise of the pedophilia theme that Solondz addressed so brilliantly in Happiness and a real pie in the face for Mark, who was so bookishly determined to get into a good school and better himself in Dollhouse. “Essentially, whether you’re 13 or 50, you’ll always be the same,” he tells Aviva. “There’s no free will. We’re all just robots programmed by nature’s genetic code.” Most comedies start with a straight story and hang jokes on it; Solondz begins with a cosmic joke and takes his characters by the hand as they suffer through it. I feel terrible for Mark, but even in retrospect I can’t help laughing.