STORYTELLING (director/writer: Todd Solondz; cinematographer: Frederick Elmes; editor: Alan Oxman; music: Belle & Sebastian/Nathan Larson; cast: Selma Blair (Vi), John Goodman (Marty Livingston), Julie Hagerty (Fern Livingston), Leo Fitzpatrick (Marcus), Robert Wisdom (Mr. Scott), Jonathan Osser (Mikey), Noah Fleiss (Brady), Lupe Ontiveros (Consuelo), Mark Webber (Scooby), Paul Giamatti (Toby Oxman), Franka Potente (editor); Runtime: 90; Fine Line Features; 2001)
“It’s meant to be bold and shocking.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
“Storytelling” is director Todd Solondz’s (Happiness/Welcome to the Dollhouse) look once again at his native New Jersey suburban landscape. It’s meant to be bold and shocking, as it covers a wide range of topics including racism, hypocrisy, exploitation of the poor, homosexuality, physical disability, political correctness, abusive sex, and the hunger for fame. It is a confrontational and disturbing film, which is not suited for all tastes. But it is not predictable, formulaic, or aimed at pleasing its audience. Instead it shoots for truth of character and gives the director a chance to vent his frustrations at his childhood upbringing.
The movie contains two stories entitled: “Fiction” and “Nonfiction.” The first, “Fiction,” takes about 30 minutes and is about a college creative writing student Vi (Selma Blair) whose boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) has cerebral palsy. After a dispute with Marcus she becomes sexually involved with her African-American college professor Mr. Scott (Wisdom) — a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Sunday Lynching. Part two, “Nonfiction,” is about a thirtysomething nerd, Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), who appears to resemble the director. He’s the director’s foil and alter ego. In this story he plays a nervous shoe salesman after striking out as an actor and not fulfilling his high school dreams. Toby puts all his energy into trying to get a grant to make a documentary about teenagers in the New Jersey suburbs.
Taking a cue from how the mean-spirited Mr. Scott critiques his students’ short stories, I give Mr. Solondz an excellent beginning, an auspicious middle and a dud ending. Overall it’s a film I found caustically funny and richly on target with this in-your-face attitude of filmmaking. It should get a diverse reaction from the film critics and the public alike.
“Fiction” begins with Vi having a bad sexual experience with her CP boyfriend Marcus (she’s not sweating) and then refusing to let him read to her his short story he’s about to present in class. He admonishes her for offering him only her pity as the PC student dresses by wearing her causes written on her T-shirt. In class Marcus’s story is not received well, and Mr. Scott calls it a work of banality and a piece of shit. Vi afterwards accidentally meets Scott in a bar and goes home with him. There the two have anal sex (there’s a red box covering the act, evidently done as a preemptive strike against the MPAA censors). The sex resembles a rape, and it is riddled with master and slave allusions as Scott makes Vi say, “Fuck me hard, nigger.” The next time in class Vi reads a story about that sex experience. Her sheltered fellow middle-class students resent hearing about her real-life experience. They criticize her for being a racist and react negatively like the critics who rail against Mr. Solondz for his shock techniques and glibness. The audience, on the other hand, is encouraged to laugh at how blind the students are and to also feel superior to Vi. She has reduced her encounter with Scott to a fantasy rape and herself to a whore. But the story had a sting to it and that sting had a power that went beyond the ordinary meaning of the story. It seemed to be saying that all stories are fiction, but the one that can touch the individual’s true experience has more value than others. It also seems to be saying do your own thing and do not be influenced by what the critics or the public perceive as art.
In “Nonfiction,” would-be documentary filmmaker Toby Oxman chooses as his subject Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber) who’s indifferent to school and life, a slacker and a stoner from an upper-middle-class Jewish New Jersey family, the Livingstons. When asked what he’d like to do when he grows up, Scooby says that he wants to become famous and hopes he has the connections to become a talk-show host. Toby films Scooby and his caricature of a family of five: his obese and overbearing father (John Goodman); his beleaguered Jewish stereotypical mother (Julie Haggerty) who is more interested in her fundraising than in the maid she employs; Mikey, a fifth-grader, the obnoxious spoiled pet of the family, admirably played by Jonathan Osser; and a younger high school student Brady (Noah Fleiss) who has no trouble fitting into the suburban pop culture and is only worried that his brother Scooby might be a homo. The director shows he couldn’t care less what happens to the jock when Brady’s reward for conformity is a football injury that leaves him a vegetable. There’s also a live-in El Salvadorian housekeeper, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros), who is fired because she is lazy. Mr. Solondz loves to rub it in how the rich family doesn’t even look upon the woman as a human being, and how she hates the family but needs to work because she’s poor. The only one in the family who makes an effort to talk to her is Mikey, but he’s not capable of dealing with real feelings. When he spills grape juice at night he deems it Consuelo’s job to do the mopping up, and he can’t find it in his heart to have pity on her when he finds her sobbing because her son was executed for a crime. Mikey embodies the moral blankness of suburbia and is probably the most significant character in either story. More than any other character he represents what the director hates most about suburbia. Mr. Solondz also indicates that the self-satisfied family shouldn’t be surprised if that hapless victim retaliates against them, which leads to the film’s ridiculous and hardly credible ending.
Toby disputes the comments of his editor (Frank Potent) that he’s using the family for cheap laughs and even says he loves these people, but a private screening confirms that that the audience is laughing at the family. Scooby has the last word about the project as he reacts to the idea of being used with, “It will be a hit.” I gather that to mean that a hit (which brings about celebrity) compensates for any humiliation it might have caused the family. As for the director, he is aware that Hollywood’s bottom-line is not in producing a work of art but in the box-office.
Mr. Solondz has covered the same territory in all his films so far and has received acclaim for his efforts by many noted critics and from a large segment of the public. In my opinion it is now time for him to move on and see what else he has on his mind. This film is not an advance from those other films as much as it is a move sideways. But it is, nevertheless, a courageous and unflinching film, one that is not afraid to openly take on America’s middle-class and their set of values by pushing the envelope and allowing the audience to decide if what they saw was true. I thought it was, and I also applaud the filmmaker and welcome his attack on the censors who think they can tell an adult audience what is appropriate for them to see. Mr. Solondz also takes some parting shots at a few of the establishment’s ‘sacred cow’ films: American Beauty and Schindler’s List. Good for him!
REVIEWED ON 3/31/2002 GRADE: B
Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”
© ALL RIGHTS RESERVED DENNIS SCHWARTZ