“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 (http://www.indiewire.com/2002/01/interview-the-sad-comedy-solondz-discusses-storytelling-80562/ ) (https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/quotes/t/toddsolond355306.html). 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 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storytelling_(film) ) (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0250081/trivia?ref_=tt_trv_trv ). 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
(DVD purchase) B