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Storytelling by Todd Solondz Also:
Ram Dass: Fierce Grace
For being so banal and ignorant, that moribund American middle class sure can find ways to shock you! Once again exploiting the urban sensibilities of an audience who supposedly gets the joke, Todd Solondz revisits the sprawling white-bread New Jersey suburbs of his youth with his latest film "Storytelling."
The film is divided into two parts - "Fiction" and "Non-fiction," both an examination of how art is misinterpreted. Opening with a scene where Vi (Selma Blair), is having sex with her cerebral-palsy-stricken boyfriend Marcus, the movie quickly slides into a series of barely connected "tense" moments. Like the flat, thinly constructed characters portrayed in "Happiness" and 'Welcome to the Dollhouse" the characters in "Stroytelling" are controlled almost exclusively by their obsessions, with little room for growth. Refusing to flesh out their motivations in any real way, the characters simply react to forces (the stupidity of American middle-class life, for instance) that infuse their every waking moment and define their mixed-up existence.

Vi and Marcus are taking a creative writing class at their bland middle-class college with Mr. Scott, a black (yes, it's important) Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist who seems to delight in tearing down his students' work, including shattering a story Marcus writes with a withering, deadpan critique in front of the entire class. When Marcus and Vi break up soon thereafter, Vi heads out to "get laid or something" and happens upon Scott in a bar and goes home with him.

Cut to the first of what have become Solondz' trademark scenes in which he does his damndest to make the audience uncomfortable.

Perhaps playing with the inert racist tendencies of an audience that most likely prides itself on its liberalism, the scene drags on as Scott slowly makes Vi undress before engaging in anal sex and making her scream, "Fuck me hard, nigger!" as he pushes her head into a wall. Even given the fact that in American cinema you're allowed to display the most senseless, gruesome acts of violence imaginable, you're still walking a fine line when you choose to show sex between two consenting adults, and as such the MPAA ratings board wanted the scene cut. Refusing to cut the scene, which in some way is necessary in order to give the subsequent scene its poignancy, Soldonz cleverly blocks out the characters with a large, red rectangle, giving us the sound and the ability to see everything in the room except for the two actors. It's a trick that works perfectly, as it exposes the disrespect our governing bodies and the media show to American adults who presumably can't be trusted to see such acts of sexual congress without a shattering of our delicate social fabric and moral sensibilities.

The scene ran uncut and unedited in its European release, and so far, there have been no reports of civil unrest or a crumbling of the social or moral order.
The second, and much longer part of the movie, "Non-fiction," features Paul Giamatti as 30-something East Village slacker Toby Oxman. Toby wants to make a documentary featuring a typical "post-Columbine" high school and stumbles upon Scooby Livingston smoking pot in one of the school bathrooms while trying to convince the schools' principle to let him film on campus. Scooby, whose only stated ambition is to be vaguely 'famous' some day, enlists his typically dysfunctional white American suburban family to take part in the documentary. As usual, there's the nitwit mom and emotionally distant father who preside (barely) over directionless Scooby and his two younger brothers, a jock and the budding genius, Mickey. Mickey is probably the most distasteful character in the film, as his interactions with the live-in maid attest. An incredibly bright child of privilege, Solondz chooses to ascribe the kid zero reasoning ability, as when he tries to wake the maid in the middle of the night when he spills grape juice in the kitchen, or when trying to convince her that her grandson, who was just executed for rape and murder, couldn't have been a good person because the law chose to put him to death, and that's what happens to bad people.

After he manages to mock the earnestness of "American Beauty" in one of the clips from Toby's documentary, Solondz drags out Conan O'Brien to star in one of Scooby's daydreams. Another cameo, if you can call it that, is Mike, the incredibly burnt out sidekick from the so-funny-and-right-on-it's-almost-depressing film, "American Movie." The fact that Mike is still able to function in the real world is amazing enough, but when Solondz names Toby's documentary "American Scooby" the joke begins to wear thin.

Throughout the film, Solondz relies on the same tired devices he used in "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness;" namely, suburban family dysfunction (can't we come up with a better name for this already?) and (wink, wink) just how stupid said dysfunctional suburban families are. Someone needs to clue him in on the fact that this subject has been covered before, and it's no longer enlightening, shocking, or particularly funny. We've seen it all before, and the movie suffers because of it. John Goodman, as the father, blusters here and there without listening to anyone else's opinion, Scooby mopes and smokes pot, Toby is the earnest artist, and everyone else is just white noise. The film ends as abruptly and pointlessly as it began, and, in the end, while it has its moments, this hopefully marks the beginning of the end of Solondz' free ride as a writer/director. If you're three movies into a career and haven't managed to do any more than make some people squirm without even trying to make a point, it may be time to hang it up.

-- Paul McLeary

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