Todd Solondz's Happiness (1998) makes me laugh like a train; it's a ruthless excoriation of suburban life, with a cast of characters desperately chasing and failing to find happiness, in disturbing and hilarious ways. There's an undeniable streak of misanthropy about the film -- we're encouraged to laugh at these people and their failures -- but also a healthy dose of humanity, largely supplied by the actors. The characters come across as lovable monsters, much like characters in the best satires, and much like real people.
Palindromes, by contrast, is just a streak of misanthropy.
The film, which unfolds like a fairy tale, is centred on Aviva (a palindromic name!), a young teenage girl who dreams of having babies. She gets herself impregnated, but is forced by her liberal suburban parents into having an abortion. This prompts Aviva to run away from home. She is raped and left stranded by an inarticulate truck driver (with whom she falls in love), and after drifting down a river, ends up in Mama Sunshine's house, a dark version of the children's sanctuary from Night of the Hunter. Here, Mama Sunshine presides over a happy household of diseased and disabled kids, whom she indoctrinates with Christianity and the flag, while Papa Sunshine plots the assassination of abortion doctors. The assassin they hire turns out to be the truck driver (whose name we learn is 'Bob' - also a palindrome!); Aviva takes to the road with him, disaster ensues, and she ends up back home living with her parents, still dreaming of a baby, much the same person as she began. Apart from that hysterectomy she doesn't know about.
The theme of all this is spelled out by the Mark Wiener character, friend of Aviva's family and obvious stand-in for Solondz. People, according to Mark, are like palindromes: the same backwards as forwards, their end the same as their beginning; they don't change, don't learn, are doomed to repeating the same mistakes. We're just slaves to our genetics. Like I said, misanthropy.
To emphasise this point, Aviva is played by seven actors of wildly differing physical appearance, and yet is always recognisably the same Aviva. She always has the same mousy voice, the same awkward movement, the same dull stare. But Solondz stacks the deck by writing and directing Aviva in a caricatured, easily-imitated way: she never comes to life as a character. A character that doesn't seem fully human is no argument for the failure of humanity.
It's hard to care about Aviva, and impossible to care for any of the adult characters, who are all one-note caricatures. I sense Solondz has some sympathy for the kids in Mama Sunshine's house -- some sympathy, but not much. While we're subtly appalled at their defencelessness against Sunshine's indoctrination, we're much more openly prodded to laugh at them, with their cringing dinner-table conversation, and their truly awful CCM song-and-dance routines. And laugh at them I did.
The film doesn't take the woes of Aviva and company seriously, and it's not clear why I should either. In this way, the film's misanthropy works against it; it's as if Solondz hates his characters too much to give them good dialogue. It's deliberately-bad dialogue, too bad to work as drama, and not funny enough to work as comedy. All ironic, of course, but the irony is mostly there by default, since we know Solondz is an intelligent and sensitive and left-wing filmmaker and wouldn't serve this stuff up unwittingly. But what does the irony serve?
Oddly enough, Solondz's irony and misanthropy end up serving the Christian Right. His film offers no principled opinion on abortion, or the exploitation of youth, or anything it depicts -- no opinion beyond misanthropy. At the woes of this world, Palindromes shrugs its shoulders and says "people are scum." But such an attitude cedes ground to Mama Sunshine and her friends, people who actually do something about the problems in the world. Moreover, such an attitude makes Mama Sunshine look good, makes her way look like the only way. When the CCM plays over the closing credits of Palindromes, it even seems like an endorsement.