In person, Todd Solondz could be a character from one of his movies. Not terribly well dressed with a nerdy demeanor, he stumbles over his words, always searching for what will get him out of trouble. And what trouble might he be in? Well, he is one of the most controversial American filmmakers today, creating love-it-or-hate-it films like Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, and his latest, Storytelling is no different. His critics have lashed out at his wallowing misanthropy, and it has apparently stung him enough that he deposits these very criticisms in Storytelling. Listen to him long enough, and it becomes clear Solondz is a very smart and funny man with great self-awareness. His own appearance, that of an awkward misanthrope, may not justify his world view, but it makes it a little more comprehensible.
Storytelling is made up of two different segments titled “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction.” In “Fiction,” grad student and aspiring writer Vi (Selma Blair), short for Vivian, watches as her cerebral palsy-afflicted boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) gets his latest short story evaluated in class. About a protagonist with cerebral palsy, Marcus’ story, sounding like a mawkish after-school special, gets hesitant, politically-correct plaudits from other classmates. However, the professor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom, looking like an African American Orson Welles–that is, the slim version), mercilessly renders the appropriate verdict that it is a piece of fecal matter. Devastated, Marcus lashes out at Vi and accuses her of wanting to sleep with Scott. Later, Vi bumps into Scott at a bar and he takes her back to his place, where Vi decides she must go along with Scott’s wishes to have sex with her if she is not to be racist. They engage in Scott’s fantasy – with Vi not exactly just play-acting the role of a white woman being dominated by a black man. (At this point in the American version of the movie, a big red box Solondz has called “Soviet-like” positions itself over the sexual content, keeping the movie from being rated NC-17.)
In “Non-fiction,” socially-inept loser, Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), is a shoe salesman and documentary filmmaker who stumbles upon high school burnout Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber) as his next subject. Scooby lives in an upper middle-class white family with stern, boisterous father Marty (John Goodman), gentle but oblivious mother Fern (Julie Hagerty), socially-aspiring younger brother Brady (Noah Fleiss), and smarty-pants youngest brother Mikey (Jonathan Osser). Marty pushes Scooby to apply to college and take the SAT though Scooby wants to drop school altogether and become a late-night talk show host.
In this second story, Solondz mocks a number of subjects – the shallowness of middle class suburban values, filmmaking that aspires to importance in only the most banal ways (Solondz names names with American Beauty), and white people’s ignorance of immigrants. The latter shows up in the relationship between Mikey and the housekeeper, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros). His callous condescension towards her is made all the more piercing because young Mikey has no cognizance of his cruelty except for a vague realization that the moral imbalance in their relationship falls on her side and that makes him uncomfortable. Their relationship may be the most affecting in the film, even though that resonance is partly accidental due to recent real world events. Storytelling was completed before the World Trade Center tragedy, but it provides one perspective from which foreigners who hate Americans might see Americans, however inadequate Solondz’s depiction of actual Americans. Consuelo consistently appears on the fringes of the Livingstons’ radar, engaging in housework around the clock while they indulge in blindingly selfish drivel. Their utter insensitivity and arrogance lead to a calamity all the more resounding because of the real life terrorist attack.
Despite several of these powerful moments that Solondz creates by shifting character perspectives at timely moments, Storytelling is brought down by the usual and legitimate criticisms that were also aimed at Happiness. Ironically, Solondz is aware of these and makes it known by having his own characters voice them. Yet awareness of criticism itself does not make them invalid, and so Storytelling, like Happiness, is filled with oblivious characters the audience can hold themselves above and laugh at in condescension. That Solondz will suddenly shift point of view to make them sympathetic, basically by showing them in pain, does not demonstrate the callousness of his audience so much as Solondz’s skill in manipulation. He creates the situations that make us feel superior to these characters and to laugh at them, and then he admonishes us for it.
If evaluative criteria is getting what its makers want, Storytelling is very successful. Solondz’s direction is fluid, the cinematography by Good Machine-regular Fred Elmes is sharp and unfussy, and the acting is strong, particularly by Webber, Osser, and Giamatti. On the other hand, if the measure is the value of Solondz’s themes and his presentation of them, the verdict is much less exemplary. Solondz is like one of those people who carries “end of the world” placards – a little skewed. Much of American life is filled with warped values – its inability to see beyond self, its emphasis on empty distractions, misguided attempts to conform – and Solondz’s films work whenshifting our perspective to see these things. But the vast majority of the time, what he shows us and what he is worried about are nonsense issues, problems made of straw, artifices he has created in his own mind.