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Movie Review: ”Storytelling”

“Storytelling” (USA 2001) ***
Directed by Todd Solondz

In “Storytelling” as in Todd Solondz’ other two features “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness”, the director balances his usual traits of unsentimentality, black humour, vulnerability, cutting-edge irony and insight with some tenderness. His characters again are lonely, misunderstood but brave souls taken up by cruelty and misery. In “Storytelling”, there are two short films called “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction” just as “Happiness” was actually three separate stories tied together with one theme. “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction” are not linked narratively, but they share the common themes of exploitation and redemption.

“Fiction” the shorter 35 minute film deals with three students, Vi, Marcus and Catherine (Selma Blair, Leo Fitzpatrick and Aleksa Palladino) saddled in a third rate university. Marcus suffers from cerebral palsy. When Marcus’ short story gets trashed by the angry and bitter black Pulitzer Prize-winning professor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), his girlfriend, Vi takes Mr. Scott home to bed. “Fiction” is interesting in the way writer/director Solondz dissects the black stereotype from the white perspective. Mr. Scott is colored, and therefore a man to be feared, respected and sexualized.

Naturally, Vi is shocked when Mr. Scott demands that she screams, “Nigger, fuck me hard” during sexual intercourse. Marcus needs redemption in the form of Mr. Scott’s approval of his writing ability. Mr. Scott uses sex with his female students to counter his inner rage. But “Fiction” is a shallow piece of work with one-dimensional characters that ultimately leads nowhere. There is little of the sardonic wit characteristic of “Happiness” or “Dollhouse”. Mr. Scott criticizes Marcus’ story as pretentious, pitiful with its earnestness being too embarrassing. It is really curious how this criticism rings so true for Solondz’s own “Fiction”.

The much longer “Non-Fiction” appears to be more autobiographical. This more assured piece centres on a failed filmmaker, nerdy Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) who resorts to the exploitation of the Livingston family to make an audience-pleasing documentary. He persuades Marty (John Goodman) and Fern (Julie Hagerty) to let their eldest son Scooby (Mark Webber) be his prime subject – using Scooby’s disillusionment over studies and life to focus on high-school life in suburbia. In “Non-Fiction”, exploitation takes many levels. Marty and Fern exploit Toby to motivate Scooby. They also exploit their maid Consuelo (the once again excellent Lupe Ontiveros, who played the theatre house manager in “Chuck and Buck”). As the tale unfolds, Solondz weaves in deeper ambiguities and spins a darker web of despair. Scooby gets a blow job from the class queer and younger brother Brady (Noah Fleiss) suffers a football accident as an indirect result.

Youngest Mikey (Jonathan Osser) takes control over the household by hypnotizing dad. Trouble looms everywhere. It is no wonder comedians John Goodman and Julie Hagerty (“Airplane”) never get to spot a smile. Solondz is more at home in his world in “Non-Fiction”. Solondz’s high school is one where students smoke pot in the washroom, cheerleaders light up in public and the coach swears freely with the ‘f’ word. Events happen as a result of God’s will, as Consuelo says, though she does not believe in God. The family dinner table scenes are funny and insightful of the family going-ons. “Fiction”, the clearly better short film more than makes up for the poor latter.

If there is any message in “Storytelling”, it comes across more effectively in the second story – that the basic human need for redemption comes with a price in some form of exploitation. “Storytelling” is still compelling viewing only because Todd Solondz is ultimately, a good storyteller – even though some of his stories might not be so good.

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