23 March 2008 | addicott
Some of the best writing you will ever see.
Writer/director Todd Solondz last rocked my world with Happiness, which was the sharpest, most unflinching black comedy I'd ever seen. He does it again with Storytelling, keeping his impeccable edge while exploring some intriguing new turf. No doubt wary after his previous ventures, Solondz attempts to circumvent some of the criticisms that less savvy viewers are bound to make. Sure enough, they go ahead and make them; the reviews are polarized. But the film is a masterpiece.
The film has two parts. The first part, titled Fiction, focuses on a creative writing student Vi (Selma Blair), her Cerebral Palsy-stricken boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) and their professor Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom).
The classroom setting provides an unusual venue: a story writing workshop within a story. Solondz puts one of the characters through a perversely traumatic experience, which we witness as viewers of the movie. Before we have a chance to pass judgment on Solondz, his character writes about the event in the 3rd person and reads the story in class. All accusations one might level against Solondz (namely: bad taste, plus every "ism" in the book) get made by the fellow students, who detest the story. But in the context of the movie, they're condemning an account of an event that actually happened! Very clever...
In spite of some of the grotesque twists, I found myself laughing out loud fairly often. Solondz has a gift for rendering subtle ironies that become overwhelmingly funny.
The lead characters are fascinating and multi-layered. Vi seems innocent, but if you pay close attention, you'll notice she's not particularly sincere. One would like to root for Marcus, but his condition doesn't excuse him for being a lousy writer and a self-absorbed a**hole. The professor may be a monster, but he is also very frank.
The second part Nonfiction is also highly self-aware. It covers the making of a two-bit documentary. In the process, the dialog once again anticipates many of the charges some will make against Solondz (that he exploits his subjects and creates a sensational freak show for us to snicker at). There's a cameo role with Mike Schank, who was featured in real life in American Movie. The similarities between the documentary American Movie, the fiction Storytelling and the documentary within a fiction (tentatively titled American Scooby) are uncanny.
Scooby (Mark Weber) is the ultimate apathetic suburban slacker teen. While very much spoiled and sheltered, he is also alienated from, and resentful of, his elders. He perks up a bit when there are no grownups around, but most of the time the "stupid" barrier is up and his eyes are half-closed and red from smoking pot. He's such a lost cause, he attracts the attention of an aspiring documentarian (Paul Giamatti).
As you might expect, the rest of Scooby's family is a real piece of work. Scooby's dad (John Goodman) is loud and domineering. His mom (Julie Hagerty) is idiotic. His younger brother Brady (Noah Fleiss) is a jock, perhaps the closest to what we'd like to consider "normal".
The brainy youngest brother, Mikey (Jonathan Osser) is a real standout. He tags around with the overworked El Salvadorian housemaid Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros) and asks her lots of questions. His curiosity is cute, but his conceited insensitivity truly boggles the mind.
Solondz definitely favors the sordid, but I'm not sure he does so gratuitously. I think he simply refuses to pretend, as so many other do, that the world is a tidy, simple place. (Those who seek to preserve such a notion are guaranteed to abhor his work.) But is it fair to berate Solondz just because he dares to present what others systematically avoid? Whose vision is more skewed: Solondz for pointing out the dog***t on our shoes, or the mainstream for ignoring it?
I wish I could agree that his writings are contrived and distorted, but I don't think they are. Through the media, through the grapevine and sometimes with my own eyes, I've seen events that are every bit as twisted and "wrong" as those Solondz creates. Everywhere I look, I encounter people who could easily be incorporated into a Solondz script.
Every storyteller recreates the world according to his/her own vision. Todd Solondz just happens to be vastly more perceptive and talented than most. Storytelling is one of the most insightful, clever and thought-provoking films I've ever seen. Watch it multiple times for maximum yield.