(USA 2001)


“I just thought Marcus would be different. I mean, he’s got C.P.”


I get why Todd Solondz doesn’t appeal to everyone: his outlook isn’t warm and fuzzy, his characters aren’t heroic or even admirable, and his blunt, unflattering and brutal honesty is easy to misinterpret as cruel or tasteless. To all that, I shrug; his films don’t put the viewer at ease, and that’s exactly what draws me to him. A master of the uncomfortable, he shines a light on subjects that are hard to discuss in mixed company if not off limits altogether. And he’s not moralistic about it—he leaves it to the viewer to arrive at his or her own conclusions. His moral ambiguity is perhaps the strongest characteristic of his work, and I suspect it more than anything makes people cringe because, well, it’s confusing. They don’t know what to think.

So be it. Barring one scene in Happiness that scarred me forever, Solondz’s fourth film, Storytelling, is probably his most uncomfortable—it opens with Vi (Selma Blair) riding Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick, who played Telly in Kids), a classmate crippled from cerebral palsy. Comprised of two unconnected storylines, “Fiction” and “Non Fiction,” Solondz pulls out a broad range of societal taboos—American ones, anyway. I won’t go through them here like a grocery list, but they all involve sex and/or abuse of power.

Side note: Censorship is an unintended subject—a big red block obscures one scene in the U.S. release. It wasn’t planned that way, but rather came about by contract ( ) ( My DVD doesn’t have the red block—the scene is graphic, but not pornographic. Concealing it wasn’t worth the effort or the P.R.

The first and shorter story, “Fiction,” is about the aforementioned Vi, a wannabe writer who probably doesn’t belong in the writing class she’s taking. The class is taught by Pulitzer Prize winning Gary Scott (Robert Wisdom), an imposing egomaniac author who’s also a black man. His critiques of his students’ work is harsh—except when it comes to Catherine (Aleksa Palladino), a bookish pseudointellectual who looks like she’s into S&M. Guess what happens when Vi finds herself in a bar with Scott, and an opportunity to go home with him presents itself? You’ll have to read the book—or in this case the writing assignment, as Vi does what any writer would: she writes about the experience.

The second—and longer—story, “Non Fiction,” is about unsuccessful schlub Toby Oxman (Paul Giamati), a floundering self-proclaimed documentary filmmaker, as he sets out to make an exposé on the everyday American teenager. The problem is, he can’t find a subject. Enter slackerish pothead Scooby Livingston (Steven Weber) and his dysfunctional family led by father Marty (John Goodman). A series of unplanned mishaps threatens to derail the whole project, until one morbid event turns the whole thing around. Belle and Sebastian proves a nice choice for the music.

Storytelling is not quite as intriguing as Welcome to the Dollhouse or Happiness, but it’s still quintessential Solondz. The lines here are quotable gold—particularly the exchanges between Scooby’s youngest brother, Mikey (Jonathan Osser), and the Livingstons’ housekeeper, Consuela (Lupe Ontiveros), which are nothing short of awesome. I love that Solondz calls out his critics—it’s the film equivalent of Madonna’s “Human Nature.” “Fiction” is definitely the more impactful of the two segments, but that’s because “Non Fiction” is just too long and meandering for its own good; it peters out around two-thirds of the way through. Storytelling doesn’t immediately come to mind when Solondz’s name comes up, but parts of it will definitely haunt you. Unlike his other films, I’m not sure what to make of this one.

A third scene, “Autobiography,” was shot but left out of the final product ( ) ( ). It starred James Van Der Beek as a closeted high school football player and featured a gay sex scene with Steve Rosen. I don’t know about the sex scene, but I think a third story would have added impact.

With Maria Thayer, Steve Rosen, Julie Hagerty, Noah Fleiss, Conan O’Brien

Production: Good Machine, Killer Films, New Line Cinema

Distribution: Fine Line Features

87 minutes
Rated R

(DVD purchase) B

Can’t Hardly Wait

(USA 1998)

As teen comedies go, the ’90s were a teenage wasteland. Sure, there were a few classics: Dazed and Confused, Clueless, Election, and American Pie immediately come to mind. That’s really about it. Can’t Hardly Wait, the second film of Chicago International Film Festival’s Totally ’90s series, is a typical specimen from the decade: it has some moments, but overall it’s either bland or reductive. Frankly, I don’t even remember it in theaters, which probably says all I need to know.

The setting is a huge kegger in a Los Angeles suburb the night of graduation. Leading man Preston Meyers (Ethan Embry), a sensitive dork, has longed for class babe Amanda Beckett (Jennifer Love Hewitt) ever since he first laid eyes on her during freshman year: he knew they were destined to be together when he noticed the same strawberry Pop Tarts in her bag that he had in his. She went for Mike Dexter (Peter Facinelli), a jock, instead; they dated all through high school. Word on the street is, Mike dumped Amanda. Intrigued, Preston persuades his snarky and derisive bestie Denise Fleming (Lauren Ambrose), certainly no woo-woo girl, to accompany him.

Meanwhile, class geek William Lichter (Charles R. Korsmo), who looks like a deranged Harry Potter, shows up to exact revenge against Mike, his lifelong nemesis. Mike, who dumped Amanda so he could be free to sleep around all summer, isn’t having fun—he’s preoccupied reconsidering his decision. While Preston chases after Amanda to give her a letter in which he spills his guts, Denise gets locked into a secluded bathroom with wannabe gangsta/raver Kenny Fisher (Seth Green), who wears big sneakers and goggles and thinks he’s a stud but isn’t.

Co-directors and screenwriters Harry Elfont and Deborah Kaplan clearly watched a ton of ’70s and ’80s teen flicks. They have good ideas, but I’ve seen them done before and done better. The only storyline that really interested me was the one with Denise and Kenny in the bathroom. And I love Seth Green. Other than that, the situations and the dialogue here lack any snap or punch. It’s all pretty flat.

This is not to say I hated Can’t Hardly Wait; I didn’t. I just didn’t love it. It was merely okay. I consider myself a teen movie aficionado, and this did not move me. The soundtrack is way better.

With Michelle Brookhurst, Alexander Martin, Erik Palladino, Channon Roe, Sean Patrick Thomas, Freddy Rodríguez, Joel Michaely, Jay Paulson, Jason Segel (in his first appearance onscreen), Selma Blair, Jerry O’Connell

Production: Columbia Pictures Corporation, A Tall Trees Production

Distribution: Columbia Pictures

101 minutes
Rated PG-13

(Public Chicago) C

Chicago International Film Festival