Dark, anti-social, amusing and mean-spirited, “Storytelling” finds New Jersey auteur Todd Solondz covering similar territory as he has in the past, but working on a smaller canvas this time out. Cleverly written and always engaging despite its now-familiar attitudes, two-part feature seems designed as much to extract artistic revenge — against exploitative teachers, cruel students, popular jocks, the entire school experience, parents and anyone with “conventional” attitudes — as to edify or entertain. As bright and imaginative as many of Solondz’s ploys may be, his targets are beginning to look rather like sitting ducks, and new pic seems like a sketch compared to the intricately connected, large-scaled ensemble work of his last film, “Happiness.” Lack of a continuous narrative alone spells a modest commercial future on the specialized circuit.
Perhaps the funniest thing about “Storytelling,” which was originally planned as a three-part picture, is how Solondz anticipates every possible objection one can have to his work and explicitly responds to them within the context of the stories. The “racist” and very un-politically correct material in the first segment is analyzed and deconstructed to a fare-thee-well. When, in the second tale, the main character’s documentary is attacked for making a “normal” suburban family look idiotic, he responds that it’s just “the way things are.” Solondz also concocts a dire fate for the man who dares to suggest, as some viewers might, that if the documaker had a miserable youth and school experience, he should just get over it and stop laying his misery and negativity on everyone else.
Thus disarmed, critics will just have to be excused for pointing out that the writer-director is still fixated on making fun of the sort of people, and lifestyle, that apparently made his early life miserable; generosity and forgiveness have evidently not yet begun to enter his moral vocabulary. Not that he necessarily lets himself off the hook, either. In the opening 26-minute segment, titled “Fiction,” aspiring writer Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) is given an exaggerated mouth and speech deformity courtesy of cerebral palsey; immediately after sex with his g.f. Vi (Selma Blair), he unsuccessfully implores her to listen to the latest draft of a short story.
After same story is excoriated in creative writing class by his fellow students as well as by the teacher, an imposing, black, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), a devastated Marcus ends his relationship with Vi. She soon approaches Mr. Scott in a bar and, in an astutely judged minimalistic scene brimming with tension touching on race, sex and the politics of teacher/student relations, agrees to go home with him. There follows a quite unsettling sex scene that conjures up all sorts of issues — consent, guilt, humiliation, black sexual stereotypes and exploitation, for starters — that get openly discussed (in typically categorical academic ways) in the next class, where Vi reads her almost journalistic “fictional” treatment of her experience with Mr. Scott.
Basically a deftly elaborated rendition of a long anecdote, episode is blunt, surprising, daring and satisfying in the way it takes on p.c. and racial cliches, and particularly the way they are used in knee-jerk ways in the world of academe. Solondz makes especially shrewd use of a class intellectual (Aleksa Palladino) who preceded Vi in Mr. Scott’s personal life. Bravely taking on such problematic characters, Blair and Wisdom are excellent, finding every layer of nuance, bile, human weakness and cheap advantage-taking between the lines of Solondz’s clipped writing.
At an hour’s length, the second segment, “Nonfiction,” is more involved, multi-faceted and problematic. Again, there is an obvious director surrogate, in this case Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), an upbeat thirtysomething sad sack whose own pathetic high school career has somehow compelled him to undertake a documentary study of contempo “teenage life in suburbia.” Scouting for potential subjects, he meets Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), a kid so thoroughly disaffected that he plans to skip his SAT exams and college in the bargain.
At first presented as a dim bulb (when Toby says he’s going to make a documentary, Scooby replies, “Oh, you mean like ‘Blair Witch Project?’ “), Scooby has no idea what he wants to do with his life, other than maybe to be on TV and become famous; at one point he has a fantasy of himself on the air with Conan O’Brien, who makes him his new sidekick. The theme of celebrity-craving is disappointingly ordinary, but fortunately it doesn’t remain central, as Scooby begins showing some signs of smarts.
Predictably, domestic life at the Livingstons’ is an antiseptic, communicationless hell. Presiding over it all is a bullying dad (John Goodman), who invariably sends one of his three sons to his room from the dinner table over the slightest offense. Mom (Julie Hagerty) is an earnest goody-goody particularly intent on maintaining her ostentatious version of Jewish heritage. Middle son Brady (Noah Fleiss) is a very straight football player, while the youngest, the bright and inquisitive Mikey (Jonathan Osser), curbs his neglect by constantly chatting up the family’s beleaguered Salvadorean maid, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros).
With time out for a thoroughly arbitrary detour in which Scooby complacently allows an admiring young male friend to give him oral sex, seg finally emerges as a full-fledged revenge fantasy that unsurprisingly takes the side of the tale’s two social outcasts, Scooby and Consuelo, the latter of whose personal suffering, when expressed to Mikey, is punished with curt dismissal from the household. As in “Fiction,” the dramatic notion driving the crucial action is exploitation, but Solondz’s rigid sympathies and antipathies make his “happy” ending predictably cynical and unsatisfactory.
Acting is deliberately more caricatured in this section, although Fleiss and young Osser ultimately emerge with some distinction. Pic’s craft and style elements are accomplished, with James Chinlund’s production design and Frederick Elmes’ lensing effectively creating the desired ambiance of a contaminated suburban womb.