Todd Solondz is largely considered an infamous and controversial filmmaker. During his career, the writer-director has enjoyed pulling back the twitching curtain on the quintessential suburban facade, revealing a gallery of the grotesque hidden behind the pristine picket fences, innocuous bake sales, pleasant PTA meetings and seemingly well-adjusted American families.
The director has delved into the darkest of subject matter, reveling in the sinister side of upper-middle-class suburbanites; his cynical worldview is coupled with mordant humor and ghoulish characters that make Robert Mitchum’s murderous miscreant in NIGHT OF THE HUNTER seem like a moral guardian you wouldn’t mind leaving your kids with.
Just how well do you know your neighbors? It’s a question often posed by Todd Solondz in his movies. In cinema, suburbia has always provided fertile ground for artists wanting to showcase the nightmares and depravity lurking beneath the wholesome veneer of an upwardly mobile community. In David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET, an amateur sleuth finds an ear that leads him to shadowy bars, violent gangs and extreme BDSM; a group of tough-talking street-kids in Wes Craven’s THE PEOPLE UNDER THE STAIRS locate feral missing people near their neighborhood; in Ricky Bates’ EXCISION, a surgery-obsessed girl angrily corrupts others and engages in extreme sexual practices — and her own brand of surgery by the movie’s conclusion. Much like Marilyn Manson’s song “Dogma,” these movies offer an alternative “Portrait of the American Family.”
This insightful and confrontational filmmaker (born in 1959) and NYU professor’s motivation for making his films is to satirize elements of suburban life, and turn over the stone on the upstanding white-bread citizens who live in it. Solondz has a particular skill for making his monstrous characters perfectly human, skilfully sidestepping one-note characterizations of villainy; whether it is Dawn Wiener’s passive-aggressive loner in WELCOME IN THE DOLLHOUSE, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s sex-pest stalker in HAPPINESS, or Aviva, the calculated and bratty protagonist of PALINDROMES. Even his character Bill, a double child-rapist, is depicted as both a loving father and a seedy sexual predator.
WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE
In WELCOME TO THE DOLLOUSE, Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) is the Junior High “ugly duckling” — the greasy-haired asocial protagonist in Solondz’s anti-coming-of-age-tale. Life is Hell for loner Dawn: her parents barely acknowledge her existence, instead lavishing attention on her pretty little ballerina sister Missy; she has a single friend in Baby Gay Ralphy, and the only attention she gets is from wannabe rapist Brandon. Dawn is one of those thoroughly unpleasant kids nobody can quite root for. Over the course of the film she befriends Brandon, then fails to pick up Missy from ballerina practice; her sister is subsequently abducted by the local pedophile, and even her attempts to find her are dismissed by her parents as attention-seeking. Poor Dawn!
Solondz got a lot of flak for HAPPINESS. The film boasts an all-star cast, which makes up the dysfunctional ensemble. The film unfolds like an anthology, focusing on individual members of a large family: Lara Flynn Boyle’s self-absorbed and ghastly writer befriends her own stalker (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), and is bitterly disappointed that she isn’t attracted to him; the willowy, vegan guitar-playing Joy (Jane Adams) is regularly abused by her students and beaten up when she allows herself to be seduced by a student in her class; and Cynthia’s psychiatrist husband Bill (Dylan Bakerwood) is a predatory pedophile who drugs and rapes young boys. Not for the faint of heart!
Aviva is a 13-year-old girl and pregnant by her father’s friend. When she is forced by her pro-life mother to terminate the pregnancy, she ends up infertile and runs away. During the film Aviva is played by different actors across the race, age and gender spectrum (possibly to get around filming ickier scenes), and much of PALINDROMES is extremely hard to stomach. Aviva winds up at a cult-religious-commune of homicidal Pro-Lifers, and the family friend who had gotten her pregnant is on their books as a contract killer. Aviva resumes her “relationship” with the inept assassin, and it all goes pear-shaped. The opening scenes of PALINDROMES take place at Dawn Wiener’s funeral after she commits suicide.
LIFE DURING WARTIME
This pseudo-sequel to HAPPINESS revisits the Maplewood family, who are now being played by an entirely different cast. Tonally, the film is almost identical to HAPPINESS — but the humor isn’t as biting. Joy (Shirley Henderson) is married to the phone pest (from HAPPINESS) and plagued by visions of an ex-boyfriend who killed himself; Helen (Ally Sheedy) is still self-absorbed, borderline narcissistic and a successful screenwriter; and Trish (Helen Jordan) is dating again and preparing her young son’s Bar Mitzvah — which coincides with Bill’s release from prison. Charlotte Rampling appears in an extended cameo as a bitter and self-loathing “monster” who seduces Bill.
Dawn Wiener lives! I’m assuming her segment in Solondz’s anthology film takes place before the events of PALINDROMES. WIENER-DOG follows several potential owners of the title canine: the aforementioned Dawn, who now works with animals and hooks up with former wannabe-rapist Brandon for a road-trip; the terminally ill Nana (Ellen Burstyn), who calls the dog Cancer; Down Syndrome married couple April and Tommy; and academic Scmerz (Danny Devito), who plots to use the dog in a terrorist act.