Name That 'Toon

Enraged, scurrilous, and angst-ridden, allergic to hypocrisy, morbidly spiteful, and naturally very funny, Todd Solondz is the movie equivalent of a '60s sick comic, a '70s comix artist, or maybe Dostoyevsky's underground man. Tougher than Terry Zwigoff, more straightforward than Neil LaBute, Solondz is a master of maxing embarrassment who dares the discomfited viewer to laugh at obviously incorrect spectacles of pain or humiliation.

Storytelling, the leanest and meanest of Solondz's misanthropic comedies, feasts on the anguish of adolescence and confusion of college—white suburban-style. Based on cartoonish stereotypes, it could be considered an anti-Amélie were the style not so laconic. Two stories are told; the first, shorter one, pointedly called "Fiction," is a memorably nasty meditation on what post-structuralists call "difference." The opening minutes oscillate between prurience and pathos, as two undergraduate members of a college writing workshop, pink-haired Vi (Selma Blair) and cerebral-palsied Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), couple in a cinder-block dorm room. "The kinkiness is gone," Marcus complains afterward. "You've become . . . kind."

Kind is not an operative word in Solondz World—here, as in Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, suffering does not necessarily make for compassion. Marcus reads his transparently autobiographical story in writing class, and after harvesting his peers' requisite sympathetic responses—one comparing him to Faulkner—gets smacked down by the teacher, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), who calls it a grotesque, pretentious, "banal piece of shit." That this Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Sunday Morning Lynching is a large, glowering black man grimly presiding over an all-white, mainly female seminar only adds to the frisson. Before long, Vi, who emblazons her politics across her chest with a collection of "Biko Lives" and "USA for Africa" T-shirts, has her own encounter with the unsmiling Mr. Scott. ("You have beautiful skin," he tells her coolly.)

Both victim and victim lover: Blair in Storytelling
photo: John Clifford
Both victim and victim lover: Blair in Storytelling


Written and directed by Todd Solondz
Fine Line
Opens January 25

Directed by Rintaro
Written by Katsuhiro Otomo, from the comic by Osamu Tezuka
Opens January 25

Solondz not only plays his stark exercise in universal objectification as a Zen parable but blatantly inscribes the anticipated critical response. As befits a movie by a onetime yeshiva student, Storytelling is to be understood as a work of commentary. Despite (or perhaps because of) Solondz's uninflected compositions and ongoing autocritique, Storytelling—which is accompanied by a soundtrack of breathy, celestial laughter—will strike some as cold and even repellent. Now a victim as well as a victim lover, Vi finally has something to write about. She makes use of her misadventure as the basis for her next story, and the class is suitably appalled: "Do people have to be so ugly? It's perverted. It's mean-spirited," not to mention racist, misogynist, and exploitative.

Storytelling's second tale, "Non-Fiction," is less finely tuned in its cruelties and performances but even more self-reflexive—not the least because it involves a nebbishy documentary filmmaker with a passing resemblance to Solondz. A disheveled dweeb with horn-rimmed glasses, Toby (Paul Giamatti) is first seen cold-calling a girl he jilted in high school 20 years before because he's heard she has become a producer. As though a graduate of Mr. Scott's class, Toby is looking for funding to make a documentary on teenage suburban life, with an appropriately deconstructivist narration. Searching for a graduating senior to profile, Toby stumbles upon Scooby (Mark Webber), a pot-smoking slacker whose ambition is to serve as sidekick to Conan O'Brien. Theirs is a pact of mutual exploitation: Scooby may be dazed and confused, but he agrees to cooperate because he knows about The Blair Witch Project and has heard of Sundance.

As in his previous movies, suburban New Jersey serves Solondz as his personal barrel of ducks. Scooby's casually dysfunctional family is a monument to unearned comfort. Every dinner affords the overweening patriarch, embodied by John Goodman, an occasion for a purple-faced slow burn. (In a touchy-feely world, this terrifying actor would be legally required to appear opposite Roseanne for the remainder of his career.) Throwing fuel upon the emotional fire, Scooby's mother is played by the suitably timorous Julie Hagerty. Making the family fatuously Jewish allows Solondz to mock their sense of victimhood, as expressed in the cult of Schindler's List. (American Beauty is another target.)

Toby's self-narrated documentary describes high school as "a time when I woke up every day depressed, in despair, and suicidal." Eventually titled American Scooby, his movie (as well as Solondz's) is consumed by a hatred of jocks and haunted by the specter of Columbine. But, as in "Fiction," it's what the New Left used to call "white skin privilege" that's most relentlessly flaunted and satirized. The truly painful episodes allow Scooby's supremely annoying little brother, Mikey (Jonathan Osser), to doggedly persecute the family's downtrodden Salvadoran housekeeper (Lupe Ontiveros in a Reno, Nevada, T-shirt), in part through his tiresome metaphysical questions. Mikey's convincing awfulness is a perverse tribute to Solondz's skill as a director of children.

"Fiction" is set in the 1980s; "Non-Fiction" complements it as a kind of a priori flashback. Where Vi was attacked by the class intellectual as "a spoiled suburban white girl with a Benetton complex," the high school guidance counselor here tells Toby that tests have shown her college-bound seniors are more stressed-out than the children of Bosnia. For Solondz, the failure of empathy is a given. In the relentlessly miserablist Happiness, he sought to test the limits of audience tolerance by making a child molester the most sympathetic character in a cast of gargoyles. Perhaps burned by the hostility—as well as tolerance—this strategy evoked, he uses Storytelling to revisit the nature of cinema ethics.

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