Storytelling (2001)

reviewed by
Jon Popick

Planet Sick-Boy:
"We Put the SIN in Cinema"

Copyright 2001 Planet Sick-Boy. All Rights Reserved.

After briefly foraying into the extremely messed-up world of adults in the exquisite Happiness, writer-director Todd Solondz returns to the fertile ground of teen angst that netted him international acclaim with Welcome To the Dollhouse. Storytelling, which one can only assume is at least a partially autobiographical pair of stories (a third, featuring James van der Beek, Emanuelle Chriqui and Dollhouse's Heather Matarazzo, was cut), is all about people and the way they handle criticism, both from others and themselves.

Solondz's approach, as those familiar with his work won't be at all surprised to learn, is like peeling back the cumulative flesh of the country's forearm and poking every nerve just to watch the fingers twitch - racism , Columbine , class warfare , same-sex luvin' , stereotypical Jews . The first chapter, titled "Fiction," runs about 30 minutes and is set on a college campus, where cerebral palsy sufferer Marcus (Bubble Boy's Leo Fitzpatrick - think Adam Sandler in Waterboy) worries that his girlfriend Vi (Selma Blair, Legally Blonde) is losing interest in him sexually because she no longer sweats when they do it. The two are both in a writing class taught by a Pulitzer Prize-winning black author (Robert Wisdom), who thinks nothing of unmercifully and unapologetically ripping the work of his students, who are mostly white females.

It'd be a shame to reveal what happens next, although a lot of you have probably already heard about the sex scene that Solondz opted to cover with a giant red rectangle instead of cutting (it's pretty integral to the story and also serves as a reminder how dopey MPAA censorship is). The scene creates the year's first unforgettable visual (I've purposely forgotten about seeing two Oscar winners in Snow Dogs): A shot showing the tiny, lily-white Blair juxtaposed with Wisdom's massive black frame as he's about to pounce on her like an antelope (the lighting and photography from Blue Velvet's Frederick Elmes drive the point home).

Storytelling's second section runs about 60 minutes (as did the missing third segment) and is called "Non-Fiction," because it's about a documentary filmmaker. Well, Toby (Paul Giamatti, Planet of the Apes) fancies himself a documentarian, though he's never made a film and sells shoes for a living (but you know he's a film geek at heart because of the Dogme poster in his bedroom). Toby wants his first doc to be about disillusioned teens and, as luck would have it, gets hooked up with the typically lackadaisical Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber, Snow Day) while pitching the idea to the principal of New Jersey's Fairfield High School.

Though Scooby seems like an ideal subject (he's got zero ambition, a plummeting brain-cell count from frequent blazing and dreams of becoming a late-night talk show host), it's really his family that becomes the focus of both Toby's film and Solondz's story. The Livingstons are an upper-class Jewish family, complete with mammoth house and live-in maid from El Salvador. Clueless parents Marty (John Goodman, One Night at McCool's) and Fern (Julie Hagerty, Freddy Got Fingered) are the type who can't quite grasp that the constant yelling at and questioning of Scooby, the eldest of three boys, are driving him further and further away from them. Middle child Brady (Noah Fleiss), a popular football player with the requisite cheerleader girlfriend, fears his older brother's alleged homosexuality might damage his own reputation. Fifth-grade brainiac Mikey (Jonathan Osser), whose nerdy clothes and annoyingly measured speech pattern make him one of the most instantly dislikable characters in recent memory, worries Scooby might be building a bomb in his room, and, literally, turns to hypnosis in order to get more attention.

The most interesting relationship in "Non-Fiction" isn't between filmmaker and subject, parent and teen, or even filmmaker and producer (played here by Run Lola Run's Franka Potente - she's yet another of the film's many detractors), but Mikey and the Consuelo the maid (Lupe Ontiveros, Chuck & Buck), with the former giving the latter grief about the number of her siblings and offspring under the guise of suburban naivete. This is the story's centerpiece, which is pretty amazing considering all the other stuff that happens here (American Movie's Mike Schank appears, American Beauty is ripped off...twice, and that's just the tip of the iceberg).

Solondz knew just what he was doing with the Beauty references, as Storytelling is probably the most damning (and accurate) portrayal of suburbia since the Oscar winner was released. He even uses cheesy sitcom music during the scene bumpers that show the facade of the Livingston house, a la The Brady Bunch. One can only imagine how mesmerizing it could have been with the third chapter (which, hopefully, will be restored to the DVD), because Solondz is clearly at the top of his game, and Storytelling merely solidifies his place among young, electrifying writer-directors like fellow nerds Paul Thomas Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, David Fincher and Wes Anderson. Like those talents, Solondz elicits terrific performances from huge ensemble casts you'd never fathom working together, and his storytelling is so brutally honest, it's tough to watch. So if Storytelling bothers you, that just means Solondz has done his job.

1:27 - R for strong sexual content, language and some drug use

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X-RT-RatingText: 9/10

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