Storytelling

 

Robin Clifford 

Robin Clifford 

Director/writer Todd Solodnz made a name for himself with the subversive coming-of-age film "Welcome to the Doll House." Then, he put a sympathetic face on parental pedophilia in "Happiness." Now, he analyzes the gray area that lives between fiction and non-fiction in "Storytelling."

Robin:
I was blown away when I saw Solondz's debut film, "Welcome to the Doll House," with its introduction of one of the most misunderstood adolescents in the history of coming-of-age flicks - the Weiner Dog (Heather Matarazzo). The work is amusing, enlightening and opens the old wounds of being an outsider when you're a kid.

"Happiness" is a more ambitious, though uneven, film that deals with perversions and twisted lives. Outstanding, in the film, is the story of Bill (Dylan Baker), a psychiatrist with his own set of problems - especially his unhealthy sexual attraction to his 11-year old son's friend and classmate. Solondz did the remarkable and put a human face on a man who, under virtually any circumstances, would be considered a monster. While the rest of the film doesn't achieve the impact of Baker's sequence, his is worth the price of admission.

Solodnz once again gets on his soapbox and pontificates, this time with "Storytelling," as he examines the gray area between fiction and non-fiction. In fact, he names his two-part opus as just that - "Fiction" and "Non-fiction."

Part one is set in a small college circa 1985. Vi (Selma Blare) is having a sexual affair with fellow student Marcus (Leo Fitzgerald), a young guy suffering from cerebral palsy. The affair has become one of pity, by Vi, and Marcus uses the waning relationship to concoct a story for their writing class. Marcus is devastated when their black professor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), tears the boys work apart, humiliating him in front of the whole class. Vi is attracted to the Pulitzer Prize-winning teacher and approaches him in a bar. She agrees to go home with him, only to be humiliated sexually (in a bit of self-aggrandizing censorship that makes Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" seem uninhibited). Her classmates deride her "fictional" account of the harrowing evening as unrealistic and pretentious.

Part two follows Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), a documentary filmmaking wannabe who has had trouble finding his niche. He is an unsuccessful actor and novelist working in a shoe store when he has the idea to make a film about teen life following events such as the Columbine tragedy. He picks as his subject one Scooby Livingstone (Mark Webber), a none too bright student who aspires to be a TV talk show host. Toby invades the dysfunctional abode of the Livingstone family with its blustering, belligerent father, Marty (John Goodman), eager to please mom, Fern (Julie Hagerty), #2 jock son Brady (Noah Fleiss) and brainy, analytic youngster Mikey (Jonathan Osser). There is also the family's under-paid, over-worked housekeeper, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros).

I have problems with "Storytelling." There is the feeling, as I watched the film, of something missing in the finished product. Part of the problem is the off-balanced two-part theme that deals with fiction versus non-fiction. Neither title fits the subject, but I figure that's Solodnz being intellectual.

Todd Solondz is a talented moviemaker and he has some interesting things to say about people and perceptions. But, with "Storytelling," he fails to draw me in to his characters that are nothing more than two-dimensional symbols and not all that likable. The most complex and sometimes scary character is young Jonathan Osser as Mikey Livingstone. Beneath the surface of his inquisitive nature beats a heart of a shark used to manipulate the adults around him to do his bidding. Mikey is as much a monster as psychiatrist Bill in "Happiness."

The stories told in "Storytelling," written by the director, fail to capture my heart and mind. The tales are told but there is nothing (except Osser's character/performance) that draws me to recommend it. Solondz may be convinced that he has something significant to say, but he isn't talking a talk that appeals to me. I give it a D+.

Laura:
'Fiction' recounts the tale of a college writing class led by a manipulatively cruel Pulitzer Prize winning author while 'Non-Fiction' showcases the attempts of an amateur documentarian to follow a student through the college application process with an equally inept subject in writer/director Todd Solondz' "Storytelling."

Todd Solondz' film, "Welcome to the Doll House," was a near masterpiece of squirm-inducing self recognition while his follow up, "Happiness" seemed to delight more in making its audience uncomfortable than exploring what made its characters tick (with the exception of its strong pedophile subplot).  With his latest, "Storytelling," Solondz appears to have fallen, over the edge into pretentious, self-referential irony.  Solondz may well be the only one laughing at his own joke.

In 'Fiction,' the shorter and weaker of the two segments, Selma Blair is Vi, a pink haired idiot who sports pro-Black causes on her oversize tee shirts and a chic attitude in her choice of lover, Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick, "Kids"), a fellow writing student with cerebral palsy.  Their teacher, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom, "Mighty Joe Young"), remains silent after a student reading, until his rumored lover, Catherine (Aleksa Palladino, "Manny & Lo"), weighs in with caustic commentary which she negates ending by 'But what do I know?'  This allows Scott to step in and agree with her while retaining the upper hand.  When Vi finds Scott in her barroom hangout, she inexplicably comes on to him, only to be sexually abused with Scott demanding she yell racial slurs.

While there is minimal humor to be found in Vi's self delusion, it comes across as a cheap shot.  Solondz counters every possible objection to his own story with the commentary of the other writing students, thereby attempting to have his cake and eat it too.  The degrading sex scene, parts of which would have earned the film an NC-17 rating, is covered by Solondz with a much-publicized large red box, ostensibly allowing the audience 'to see what it couldn't see'.  This nose thumbing at the ratings system is a mere ploy for self promotion, as the scene would have relayed all it needed had the dialogue been presented over the footage which was allowed.

in 'Non-Fiction,' Paul Giamatti ("Big Fat Liar") stands in for the director as Toby Oxman, a loser who's drifted from job to job hoping circumstance would drop his lucky break into his lap.  His subject Scooby (Mark Weber, "Animal Factory") is his counterpart, an aspiring talk show host depending on non-existent connections rather than anything resembling effort on his part to provide his career.  He hates his family, which includes a blustering, cliche spouting dad (John Goodman), a mom (Julie Hagerty, "Airplane") who wears her Jewishness as her identify, his popular jock brother Brady (Noah Fleiss, "Joe the King") and his smart, ignored, psychopathic little brother Mikey (Jonathan Osser, "Max Keeble's Big Move").  Is Solondz trying to reference American Pop culture here with references to "Scooby Doo," "The Brady Bunch" and those Life cereal commercials?  Downtrodden housekeeper Consuelo (Lupi Ontiveros, "Chuck & Buck") is treated as an object by all but Mikey, who tortures her with seemingly innocent, but cruelly self-serving questions.

Once again, Solondz anticipates criticism via Tobey's editor (Franke Potente, "Run Lola Run"), who believes he feels hatefully superior to the people he's documenting.  While there are some funny moments, such as Scooby pushing all his father's buttons by using logic and his mother's inane statements to conclude that he wouldn't have been born if it hadn't been for Hitler, or Tobey highlighting his complete lack of originality in footage that's an "American Beauty" parody featuring a straw wrapper, the overall impact of the film is bored annoyance.  For the first time, I found a filmmaker's choice to leave a shot of the World Trade Center *in* his film in poor taste. Like that red box, it feels self congratulatory.

"Storytelling" is proof that Solondz has wrung his own formula dry.

D+

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