`Storytelling' tells its two stories badly

Review: Director Todd Solondz lacks the originality to back up his contrary moviemaking.

February 08, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Filmmaker Todd Solondz gets credit from his followers for being satiric and complex because he sprays venom at everyone, including his critics and himself. So what? His characters are as flat as unleavened bread, and his ironic wit is the equivalent of a stand-up comic putting air quotes around everything.

The hubris of Storytelling starts with its title. Part I, "Fiction," merely is an anecdote about a pretty blond college student in a nightmare creative writing class. Part II, "Non-Fiction," is the rambling chronicle of a talent-challenged documentary filmmaker exploiting the cluelessness of a suburban New Jersey family.

The creative writing students in "Fiction" and the documentary-maker's film editor in "Non-Fiction" are designed to stand in for those who disliked Solondz's previous art-house hits, Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness.

The students and the film editor don't go far enough when they condemn Solondz's work for being contemptuous of his human subjects.

In the foully breezy Storytelling, Solondz also lacks the dramatic talent to back up his contrariness, or the originality to jolt us with freshly curdled insights. Solondz plays the game of being politically incorrect in a politically correct way.

In "Fiction," Vi (Selma Blair) moves from making love to a cerebral-palsied fellow writing student (Leo Fitzpatrick) to pleasuring their Pulitzer Prize-winning black teacher (Robert Wisdom) - who turns out to be as sadistic in his intimate practices as he is when shredding a story in class. The sex act these two share has been described as anal rape, but we can't tell exactly what it is. In order to win an R rating, Solondz has blocked out the coupling with a big red rectangle. (Solondz probably sees the block as his creative red badge of courage, and another satiric jibe at middle-class proprieties.)

This film's attacks on exploiting race-based fantasies and coddling the handicapped are only superficially daring. All Solondz has produced here are arguing points: He's fashioned a foreshortened version of David Mamet's Oleanna - and that's enough for his admirers to go "Ole!"

Even though a classmate accuses Vi of misogyny when she recounts her up-against-the-wall, one-night stand in a story she reads in class, the movie depicts academia circa 1985 as No Woman's Land. What feminist would argue with that?

"Fiction" is G.B. Shaw compared to "Non-Fiction." In this longer short film, documentary filmmaker Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) follows a ne'er-do-well senior named Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber) and the entire Livingston family into suburbia's heart of blankness, for a movie to be called American Scooby.

The father (John Goodman) is overworked and emotionally bludgeoning, the mother (Julie Hagerty) is compliant and conventional - she aggrandizes the family's Jewish identity by gratuitously invoking the Holocaust. Their second son (Noah Fleiss) is nothing but a jock, and their youngest son (Jonathan Osser) is a manipulative monster who epitomizes the family's politely callous treatment of their Salvadoran housekeeper (Lupe Ontiveros).

To them, upward mobility is a neverending process, dependent partly on doing the expected and partly on the mysterious knack of developing "connections." Scooby is a drifting soul who dreams of having a talk show like his hero Conan O'Brien and doesn't realize that Conan went to college. At Harvard. And Toby is so eager for acclaim that he doesn't mind if the Livingstons come off as fools so long as he wins an audience.

The one pure victim here is the housekeeper - that is, until she commits an unspeakable act. But again, the audacity of this turnaround is feeble and may even backfire. After all, these days Miramax is promoting In the Bedroom with a blurb from celebrity victim spokesman Dominick Dunne saluting the nobility of that movie's climactic act of revenge.

It's a sign of how inflated discourse on movies has become that a slender, uncertain moviemaker like Solondz is debated in terms that the literary world reserves for such titans as Philip Roth.

The novelist wrote My Life as a Man at the same age that Solondz made Storytelling. Roth's masterpiece also has an unconventional two-part structure (a short story and an ambitious narrative), characters that include academics and Jewish suburbanites in New Jersey, and figures who function as mouthpieces for the writer's own critics. Yet Roth draws on every part of himself, and his fiction is about matters that go beyond himself - the straitjacket of a prescribed view of manhood, and the clash between pursuing erotic pleasures and higher callings like literature.

Solondz is still stuck in an adenoidal whine.

Storytelling

Starring Selma Blair, Paul Giamatti

Directed by Todd Solondz

Rated R (adult language, sex)

Released by Fine Line

Running time 85 minutes

Sun score: *

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