What to make of filmmaker Todd Solondz? His films
(WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE, HAPPINESS) are laced with mordant
humor that can be read as condescending or caring, depending on your
point of view. While he has all but distanced himself from his first film
(1989's FEAR, ANXIETY AND DEPRESSION) because he didn't have
creative control over it, he clearly is proud of his later efforts. In all
honesty, I found WELCOME TO THE DOLLHOUSE difficult to sit through,
its purported painful honesty and its satire seemed more barbed than
necessary. Maybe it struck too close to home. On the other hand, I
appreciated HAPPINESS. That a writer-director could create
sympathetic portraits of people society might otherwise deem as
monsters (i.e., an obscene phone caller, a pedophile) struck me as
fascinating. Rather than condescend to his characters, Solondz crafted
a motion picture that challenged its audience. Maybe it was so far
from my experience, I could respond to the material.
STORYTELLING, screened at the 2001 New York Film Festival,
is another story all together. I can appreciate what the writer-director
is trying to do, but his approach struck me as more flippant. It seemed
to me Solondz was using this film not so much to explore a taboo or
offer social commentary, but to settle scores with those who criticized
him. The contemptuous tone adopted by Solondz completely offended me.
STORYTELLING is a diptych, comprised of a short opening scene called
"Fiction" and a longer one, "Nonfiction". In each section, Solondz is clearly
attempting to point out how "art" is often misinterpreted or
misunderstood. But there's no humanity in his approach; there's little
warmth or humanity in his depiction of the characters. The overwhelming
tone of bitterness that pervades each part of the film is a major turn-off.
(Undoubtedly, Solondz would argue that I'm part of that group that just
doesn't "get" it. But I do. That's the problem.)
"Fiction" runs a little under a half-hour and concerns a college
co-ed Vi(Selma Blair) who is dissatisfied in her life. She has been
sleeping with fellow aspiring writer Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) who has
cerebral palsy. In class, she doesn't really rise to defend his story
when their cut-throat classmates tear it apart, or when their teacher,
a Black Pulitzer-winner (Robert Wisdom) also excoriates it. Marcus
breaks it off with Vi, who decides to push the envelope by picking
up Scott in a bar. While there is the potential for an intriguing
exploration of any number of subjects -- from race to the politics of
sex -- Solondz opts to debase the story by having Scott demand
that Vi scream out racial epithets during their sexual encounter.
(The scene is shown with a large red box over the actors so the
film would avoid an NC-17 rating and so Solondz can "comment"
on movie censorship.) When Vi turns her encounter into a story for
the class, it is deemed unbelievable, despite the girl's protestations
that "it happened."
The longer section is clearly meant as a parody of the
documentary AMERICAN MOVIE, which some (including Solondz)
felt was condescending to its subject -- aspiring filmmaker Mark
Borchardt. Lest anyone miss the connection, Solondz has hired
that film's Mike Schank to appear as a cameraman. Paul Giamatti
plays Toby Oxman, a shoe salesman whose dismal high school
experience drives him to make a documentary about contemporary
students. He settles on underachiever Scooby Livingston (Mark
Webber), who wants nothing more than to be famous. His oddball
family -- overbearing dad (John Goodman), ditsy mom (Julie
Hagerty), jock brother (Noah Fleiss) and bratty youngest brother
(Jonathan Osser) -- is hardly the typical American one. There's also
the overburdened and downtrodden Hispanic maid (Lupe Ontiveros)
who comes to play a pivotal part in the story.
The one thing that Solondz's earlier had going for it were
the performances. Here most of the actors are badly misused. In
the first section, Selma Blair is badly miscast. Adept at playing
arch comedy (see CRUEL INTENTIONS or LEGALLY BLONDE), Blair
hasn't yet found a dramatic part that allows her to fully explore her
potential. Reduced to spouting ethnic slurs during a sex scene can
hardly be constituted as a high point in her career. None of the
other parts are fully developed, leaving the actors at sea. In the
second section, Mark Webber perfectly captures the laid-back
attitude of someone content to coast through life and Paul
Giamatti tries to inject some personality into the sad sack
filmmaker he's portraying. Franka Potente briefly shows up as
Toby's film editor who serves as the voice of reason (but is ignored).
On the other hand, Goodman is all bluster and Hagerty should
be growing tired of playing these airhead types that were her stock
Except for a well-aimed barb at the overrated AMERICAN BEAUTY,
Solondz doesn't exactly break new ground with his targets. Audiences
might expect that a man now in his early forties could get beyond
whatever hurts he suffered in junior and senior high school and move
on. It seemed as if he were headed in new directions with HAPPINESS,
but with STORYTELLING, Todd Solondz takes several giant steps
backwards. There's nothing satisfactory or enjoyable about the tales
he tells in this film.
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, language
and some drug use
Running time: 87 mins.
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.