Storytelling
          
          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
  in trade.

          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.


                          Rating:                C-
                          MPAA Rating:       R for strong sexual content, language
                                                       and some drug use
                          Running time:       87 mins.
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.