Storytelling (United States, 2002)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

With Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, Todd Solondz proved himself to be a daring filmmaker who will not shy away from provocative issues, even if they offend a large portion of his audience. Storytelling, Solondz's new film, is an inelegant combination of two unrelated shorts that falls far short of the director's previous work in terms of both thematic content and narrative strength.

Storytelling is divided into two segments. The first, and by far the more interesting one, is called "Fiction", and runs for about 30 minutes. It stars Selma Blair as Vi, a college co-ed, and Leo Fitzpatrick as Marcus, her lover, who is afflicted with cerebral palsy. Both are enrolled in the creative writing class of Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), a former Pulitzer Prize winner who tears into the work of his students without mercy. One night, Vi meets Mr. Scott in a bar, and the two adjourn to his apartment. Their subsequent sexual encounter is rough (bordering on brutal) and devoid of anything resembling tenderness.

The longer episode of Storytelling is "Non-fiction", which introduces us to the dysfunctional Livingston family: slacker Scooby (Mark Webber), jock Brady (Noah Fleiss), brainy Mikey (Jonathan Osser), and parents Marty (John Goodman) and Fern (Julie Hagerty). These people have made non-communication into an art. In fact, when Mikey wants to know what rape is, he asks the maid, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros). Along comes would-be documentary filmmaker Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), who wants to make a movie about Scooby's attempts to get into college. Scooby isn't really interested in higher education, but he likes the idea of being in a movie, thinking that maybe it will give him the opportunity to appear on the talk show of his hero, Conan O'Brien. However, while Toby starts the project with the best of intentions, it quickly turns into a farce that pokes fun at his subjects.

In terms of holding an audience's attention, "Fiction" does a much better job than "Non-fiction". Although the first part of Storytelling has its share of problems - in particular, Solondz's statement about racism comes across as muddled - it possesses an energy that is absent from the dull, rambling second segment. Character development, perhaps as a result of the limited time accorded to each narrative, is weak. While there's clearly a point to "Fiction", "Non-fiction" will leave viewers scratching their heads and wondering what about the story Solondz found compelling enough to warrant committing to the screen.

"Fiction" might have made a worthwhile statement about racism had the characters been given the opportunity to breathe and develop. However, in order to satisfy time constraints, Solondz expresses all of his concerns about taboos and racial stereotyping in a wordy, pretentious dialogue scene. This reduces the black/white issues to the level of a red herring. The real subject matter here isn't racism, it's the abuse of power and betrayal of trust (the teacher having sex with a student). That theme continues into "Non-fiction", where the filmmaker uses his power over the Livingstons to betray then. And, in the film's oddest sub-plot, Mikey uses the power of hypnosis to facilitate an incredibly contrived ending.

Most of the performances are solid. As Vi, Selma Blair gives us a character we would like to spend more time with - she's the only one in the entire film who comes across as three-dimensional. Robert Wisdom is effective as the dour, angry-at-the-world Mr. Scott, whose every word drips with resentment. Mark Webber presents Scooby as suitably unmotivated. John Goodman and Julie Hagerty show off the serious side of their acting (with Goodman succeeding much better than Hagerty). And Paul Giamatti develops his character as a cross between a huckster and a loser.

The most notable thing about Storytelling, however, has less to do with anything on screen than what's obscured from our viewing. In order to appease the MPAA and achieve an R-rating, which his contract mandated, Solondz had to find a way to soften the sex scenes between Vi and Mr. Scott. Rather than going the Eyes Wide Shut route and employing digital trickery or using the old-fashioned method of re-editing, Solondz elected to blot out the offending material by a huge red block. (Red blocks will not appear on prints distributed outside of the United States.) By doing this, Solondz is openly arguing that the MPAA, rather than merely providing "guidelines", is functioning as a censorship body. It's a worthy message and an interesting manner to get it across; unfortunately, the medium is too mediocre for it to merit much notice.

While the worldview espoused by Storytelling may mirror that of Happiness, it's one of the few areas of synergy. Happiness works not just because it is provocative, but because it features interesting people functioning in a bold, well-constructed narrative. Despite the red boxes, Storytelling doesn't push the envelope, and, with the arguable exception of Vi, Solondz fails to get a firm grasp on any of the characters. The first lesson of telling a story is to keep the viewer interested, and that's where Storytelling displays a serious flaw.

Storytelling (United States, 2002)

Run Time: 1:24
U.S. Release Date: 2002-02-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1