review by KJ Doughton, 1 February 2002

Todd Solondz’s bitter, caustically comic "Storytelling" comes across as the work of a particularly vengeful nerd out for some unforgiving payback. He hacks away at suburban facades with the zeal of a classroom geek wasting the school bully after brushing up on some Tae Kwon Do – or brandishing a revolver from his father’s hunting cabinet. Of all the new filmmakers that emerged in the early nineties, Solondz is by far the angriest. He’s like the cinematic blood brother of fringe-dwelling artist R. Crumb, his vision empowered by personal rage made comic.

1996’s Welcome to the Dollhouse announced the New Jersey director’s arrival with a fierce take on sibling rivalry and coming of age. Its adolescent protagonist, Dawn Wiener, stumbled through a psychic torture chamber of junior high abuse while her parents gave preferential treatment to a favored younger sister. Two years later, Solondz spewed even stronger venom with Happiness, a kind of Blue Velvet meets American Beauty that stirred together a pedophile, an obscene phone caller, a cheerfully insensitive housewife, a jaded author, and a fragile folky for whom low self-esteem would be an overstatement. The only ray of hope to emerge from this unsavory stew of miserable miscreants was a triumphant young boy’s first, er, "bodily emission." That’s Solondz’s idea of a happy ending.

Storytelling is another pissed-off picturebook that’s split into two separate narratives, Full Metal Jacket-style. The first half, "Fiction," deals with an eighties era creative writing class, instructed by a hard-a*s, dream-snuffing teacher, Mr. Scott (an intense Robert Wisdom). An embittered African-American who claims a writer’s Pulitzer Prize but little upward job mobility, the educator is all steely-eyed gazes and angry put-downs. He crucifies Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), an eager-beaver student whose essay on living with cerebral palsy is hacked to pieces by Scott’s blunt-edged verbal sword. "The story’s a piece of sh*t," states the unapologetic instructor.

Meanwhile, Marcus’ lover is a naïve, pretentious blonde named Vi (Selma Blair) who consoles the disappointed scribe as he exits Scott’s class a blubbering, humiliated sad sack. "He hated my story, too," Vi reminds him. "But your story was crap," weeps the insensitive suitor.

With her social activist T-shirt slogans and bleeding heart allusions, Vi prides herself on being a forward-thinking intellectual. However, she’s quickly exposed as a trendy bandwagon jumper bopping from one blurry cause to another. "Why do I waste my time with undergraduates," she complains during a breakup with Marcus. "They’re all so juvenile. I thought Marcus would be different – after all, he’s got cerebral palsy!"

Soon, this wannabe is cozying up to Mr. Scott and going home with the quietly seething mentor. At this point, Storytelling morphs into an ugly, surreal freak show that conjures forth memories of Jed and Maynard’s lurid, S & M pawn shop from Pulp Fiction. Scott is revealed as a sadistic pervert who channels life’s frustrations into bondage games and rough sex.

Finally, Storytelling’s first mean-spirited yarn reaches a denouement, in which Vi reveals her degrading encounter with Mr. Scott through an in-class reading of a new story based on the night’s sordid activity. Instead of sympathy, her classmates bash the piece as ugly, racist, self-pitying drivel, the work of "a spoiled white girl with a Mandingo complex."

It’s a feel-bad ending for a depressing story that throws a bunch of hot-button items in the viewer’s face and asks to be seen as hip, winking social commentary. But what, exactly, is the message to its madness? By making Mr. Scott a black man who demands that his lovers scream racial epithets during demeaning intercourse, is Solondz probing racism and exploitation? The way it’s set up, Storytelling appears to champion Mr. Scott’s shabby treatment of Vi, the unworldly chump whose attempts at empathy end with her getting some "real education" (wink, wink). It’s a bogus view, both cynical and wrongheaded.           

The yuckiness continues in a second act, "Nonfiction," that introduces us to the Livingston family. Marty (John Goodman) the clan’s patriarch, is a self-deluding, middle-aged working man who prides himself on his bread-winning capabilities even as he alienates three sons and a wife (Julie Hagerty) who’s equally in denial. Meanwhile, their underachieving elder son Scooby (Mark Webber) takes solace with a smoldering roach clip in the corner of his high school’s rest room, when he isn’t pondering long term goals with a guidance counselor. "I dunno what I want to do with my life," he mumbles flatly, looking one short of a six pack. "Maybe have a talk show like Conan or Letterman."

Desperate documentary filmmaker Toby Oxman (played with complex shades of humanity by the omnipresent Paul Giamatti) befriends the flummoxed stoner, and persuades the Livingston family to star in his latest project. Attempting to illuminate the pressures and decisions faced by contemporary high school students bound for college, Toby sees in Scooby the embodiment of pre-SAT angst, and perhaps a reflection of his own frustrated high school days.

Solondz introduces Oxman as another of his insecure, nebbishy heroes, a decent guy who doesn’t quite have the gumption to make it in life. As he shuffles through a high school yearbook, searching for a long-ago female acquaintance to ask on a date, we wince at the middle-aged man’s urgent anxiety: he knows that his time is running out in matters of love and livelihood. After some half-a*sed stabs at acting, law school, and writing, he rationalizes such failures with the defensiveness of a left-behind relic watching the world pass him by. "I’m glad to be out of writing," he says, along with the sour-grapes proclamation that "the whole publishing industry is totally corrupt."  

Storytelling’s director is equally detailed in his study of Scooby, who sets himself contentedly adrift in a sea of Elton John tunes and bong hits while hibernating in his room. When Toby introduces himself as a documentary filmmaker, Scooby perks up. "Documentaries," he clarifies with straight-faced sincerity between puffs of Colombian Gold. "Like The Blair Witch Project?"  Meanwhile, dad pushes him to apply for college, but the underachiever has other priorities. "My CD case just collapsed," he laments at the dinner table, "and I’ll have to re-catalogue my music all weekend."

Like the evil father in a cheesy Twisted Sister video, Marty insists that the indifferent spawn accept a future of higher learning. Meanwhile, Toby is on hand to film every minute of this reluctant rite of passage.

There are other well-drawn characters. Scooby’s jock brother, Brady (Noah Fleiss), is too focused on girls, cars, and touchdowns to make time for even a sliver of sensitivity. "Why do you drive such a sh*tty car?" he asks Toby as the filmmaker pulls into the Livingston family driveway. Equally unfeeling is the household’s youngest child, Mikey (Jonathan Osser), who demands that an overworked maid tend to his spilled grape juice even as she mourns the recent death of her son.

Eventually, Storytelling concludes in an explosion of exploitation, revenge, and tragedy. When Toby’s well-intended movie evolves into an altogether different type of animal that may or may not portray Scooby in a flattering light, Solondz dares us to ask ourselves whether personal trust and integrity should be compromised in the name of a pop culture "hit." Giamatti, bringing to life a man who subtly morphs from a tentative wannabe to a triumphant – if compromised – success, has never been better. The film’s final scene, in which Scooby’s eyes become sober and knowing for the first time, caps a brilliant performance by Webber as a dazed druggie waking up from a life-long pipe dream.  

Despite the superb acting that permeates every scene in "Non-Fiction", Solondz insists on enshrouding the finale in a dark cloak of nihilistic tragedy. His story could stand on its own as an honest look at both how we are used, and how we use others, in waves of exploitation that are often gradual, imperceptible, and even unrecognizable. Instead, he slips us a sneaky Molotov cocktail at the last minute. It feels like a cheap shot.

In the end, Storytelling gives us the best and worst examples of celluloid yarn spinning, taking detailed, complex characters and subjecting them to post-Tarantino shock tactics. Early on in the film, a writing student asks a peer why her material is so mean-spirited. The same could be asked of the undeniably talented Solondz, who conjures up intriguing people and chucks them into a meat grinder. For his next bout of cinematic storytelling, the director could afford to really test his range - with a happy ending.

Written and
Directed by:

Todd Solondz

Selma Blair
Leo Fitzpatrick
Robert Wisdom
Paul Giamatti
John Goodman
Julie Hagerty
Jonathan Osser
Noah Fleiss
Lupe Ontiveros

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult





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