Todd Solondz is a director capable of finding humor in the darkest moments of life. “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness” contained bizarre scenes involving abuse, kidnapping, rape and incest. And he made it all seem funny. With “Storytelling” the tone is no different. The structure consists of two completely different stories labeled “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction” focusing on the lives of teenagers and college students.
In the first segment, we open on a completely nude girl named Vi (Selma Blair) who finishes, and I mean “finishes,” having sex with her boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) who has cerebral palsy. (Note: Actor Leo Fitzpatrick does not have cerebral palsy, though you may not know that from his performance which features the recognizable affected voice, crimped hand and troubled sideways walk.) Marcus suspects that she doesn’t like him anymore and that, in his slurred words, “…the kink is gone.” The two are in a college fiction writing class together led by their black professor Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom). Blair’s character takes an interest in Professor Scott for a number of reasons, primarily, though she may not admit it, because he is black. Scott is a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer stuck at a small time college and is brutal in his assessment of his student’s work, calling Marcus’ latest short story exploring his cerebral palsy affliction “s**t.” Vi’s interest in Professor Scott becomes dangerous and an encounter between the two of them results in the biggest tragedy of her young life as well as the best work she’s ever done.
In the second tale, entitled “Non-Fiction,” Paul Giamatti plays Toby, a documentary filmmaker who looks, strangely, exactly like Todd Solondz. He begins making a film about “young high school kids” and settles on Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber) as one of the film’s subjects. His Jewish family consists of a well-meaning mother (Julie Hagerty), two brothers and is led by Mr. Livingston played by John Goodman. They’re all dysfunctional in some way, but not to television sitcom extremes. Scooby aspires to be a television host, yet has no desire to enter college. Toby’s cameraman is Mike Schank (yes, THE Mike from “American Movie”) and together they document Scooby’s story and learn that there isn’t much to this young teen – he’s a typical, delusional loser with aspirations but no direction. Luckily for Toby, a few tragedies strike that result in making the subject, and his documentary, much more interesting. I’m reluctant to describe any more of the story since certain major plot twists are critical to your enjoyment of this picture. Suffice it to say, all is not pretty in Solondz’s world.
Normally characters involved in deviant behavior end up as the object of disdain from audiences. However, Solondz not only presents the motivations but also creates an intimacy thereby succeeding in getting us closer to each subject, no matter how repulsive their actions are. I guess this is what may bother people when they say “I don’t like Todd Solondz’s films.” It’s too easy to dismiss that which makes us uncomfortable and while some may find “Storytelling” challenging, which is just a polite of saying “I just don’t get it,” I find it damn refreshing.
You have to praise the fact that Solondz is bold enough to include dangerous material in his films. But I can’t imagine that everyone saw it the same way that I did. I appreciate his sensibilities, however, I’m not sure how broad the appeal of this film will be. And I imagine Solondz couldn’t care less. He’s not making studio pictures or taking his characters from “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and using them in other films in some kind of lame trilogy. In the end, “Storytelling” is a masterful comedy that will divide audiences, but it left me laughing hysterically. I hope that doesn’t make you think I’m a sick bastard, but if so, piss off.