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Misanthropic Solondz Sticks to His Guns

By Jed Horne



Written and Directed by Todd Solondz

Starring Selma Blair, Robert Wisdom, Paul Giamatti, Mark Webber, John Goodman, Lupe Ontiveros, and Jonathan Osser

Rated R for violence, sexuality, nudity, drugs

According to Todd Solondz, Hell is New Jersey, Dante’s worst nightmare of perverts, pedophiles, and other suburbanites.

Think what you want of Solondz’s world view, but it is difficult to accuse this young (and brilliant) filmmaker of anything much worse than choosing an easy target. His third major production (following Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness), is another low-budget, highly offensive flick testing the boundaries of decency and the pain tolerance of American moviegoers, who seem to prefer their suburban angst dripping with American Beauty brand syrup and whitewashed by critical impotence. Solondz sees no beauty in cul-de-sacs -- only ubiquitous, morally unambiguous dysfunction, and scathingly funny humor.

The first of the film’s two segments is set in the early 1980s. In “Fiction,” Vi (Selma Blair) is seduced by her black creative writing professor (Robert Wisdom). Wallowing in self-pity and white guilt (“Don’t be a racist, don’t be a racist ...” Vi pleads with herself, ante-coitus), she writes a short story about the experience to share with the class.

In “Non Fiction,” the contemporary and inexplicably much longer story, hapless documentary director Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti, Private Parts) makes a movie about the life of Scooby (Mark Webber), an alienated suburban kid whose interests include other boys and Late Night With Conan O’Brien. Of course, who wouldn’t be screwed up growing up in his family? His earnest but feckless father (John Goodman) and more-Jewish-than-Jesus mother (Julie Hagerty, a dead ringer for Dr. Laura Schlessinger) rule over a household in need of perpetual damage control. Scooby’s brother Mikey (Jonathan Osser) convinces his hypnotized father to fire the live-in maid, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros, Born in East LA), because he thinks she’s lazy. Brady (Noah Fleiss), the pretty but shallow other brother, is in a coma after being injured in football practice.

Self-consciously introspective and bordering on pedantic, Storytelling examines the line between fiction and nonfiction, filmmaking and reality. It is clear that Todd Solondz has very little respect for his characters, but he scolds Toby for the same failure. Vi, whose anti-apartheid convictions seem to be little more than t-shirt slogans, drowns in her own racist fantasy of black male virility, but Solondz almost mocks his own production, in which the only black character likes to tie up young white co-eds during rough sex.

Although it has a darker overall feel, much of this film harks back to Happiness, and the loners and losers of Storytelling could easily have been another one of the four or five subplots in the previous movie. Solondz even uses many of the same camera techniques, including a shot in which Robert Wisdom’s black face fades almost entirely into the black backdrop. Questionable, however, is his decision to paste a red square over bits of a sex scene. A ratings ploy? Or a ratings ploy masquerading as a cinematic statement?

The actors in the film are uneven at best; aside from veteran John Goodman most of the other performers have previously only graced the silver screen in supporting roles. Particularly disappointing is the performance of Mark Webber, whose humorless veneer makes his character more grating than biting. Mike Schank is underutilized in his almost thirty seconds of screen time as Toby’s assistant, a role that he played with tremendous gusto in American Movie, another film-about-making-a-film.

Criticism aside, the movie serves up the unabashed social commentary for which Todd Solondz is deservedly infamous. “Even though you’re poor, don’t you have any hobbies or interests or anything?” Mikey asks Consuelo as she scrapes what appears to be congealed fat off the floor of the kitchen.

Maybe I’m a terrible person (and maybe that’s what Storytelling is trying to say), but I can’t help but enjoy myself at the expense of other people. Laughter is always much heartier when it’s tinged with guilt and self-recognition. And nobody, with the exception of my second-favorite misanthrope Neil LaBute (In The Company of Men), is as exploitive of that fact as Todd Solondz.