The criticism surrounding Todd Solondz’s equally loved and hated film Happiness (1998), was his employment of fringe subject matter which included rape, pedophilia, murder and masturbation, and of characters whose misery and deplorableness are put on display for the viewing public’s pleasure and disgust. With Solondz’s latest effort Storytelling, the indie director is more concerned with responding to that reproach with his own lashes and cheeky irony, rather than building upon his incisive look at suburbia in Happiness. Instead of investing time and injecting complexity into his characters as in past works, Solondz privileges taking shots at his pundits and utilizing shock tactics to transparent ends. In his two previous films he had transcended the shocking nature of his subject matter by creating characters who confounded the audience, leaving moviegoers conflicted about our compartmentalized notions of good and evil. Yet in Storytelling he gets wrapped up in justifying his position toward his characters and his choice of topic, and he loses the level of intensity and intricacy reached in Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness.
Storytelling is divided into two narratively separate, but thematically consistent sections: Fiction and Nonfiction. Fiction,set in New Jersey, focuses on a creative writing class taught by a mordant Pulitzer Prize winning African-American teacher, Dr. Scott (Robert Wisdom). Solondz dives right into controversy by beginning the section with a love scene between Vi (Selma Blair) and cerebal palsy-inflicted Marcus (Leo Fitzpatick). Post-coitus, Leo accuses Vi of having grown tired of the novelty of handicapped sex. In class Leo reads an autobiographical story of his affair with Vi, and concludes by saying: “CP didn’t stand for cerebral palsy anymore, but rather, cerebal person.” His classmates respond with approbation and cliches, invoking other writers who were afflicted with handicaps, and paying lip service to political correctness. That is until Scott cuts in and calmly calls the story a “load of shit.” Leo is devastated and breaks up with Vi for encouraging him to read it. Later at a bar, Vi runs into Scott, and asks him if he thinks she could be a writer. He stoically responds no, she goes home with him to his apartment, and he orders her to undress. He then tells her to face the wall and chants racial epithets as he sodomizes her. During the scene Solondz covers the two characters with a red box, pre-empting an NC-17 rating, as if to say to the MPAA, I won’t let you censor me, I’d rather censor myself. Vi then writes a short story based on her night with Scott and reads it in class. The students respond by calling the story racist, misogynistic, exploitative and disturbing. Criticism which sounds unsurprisingly reminiscent of the charges leveled against Happiness.
Scott dismisses it as “callow and coy,” and as the discussion comes to a head, Vi yells out that it really happened. Scott answers that “once you start writing it all becomes fiction.” The whole of Fiction clocks in at around half an hour, and with the short running time, it suffers from a lack of character development, a wooden plot construct and bland cinematography. The students in the class never become more than voiceboxes for criticism of Solondz’s previous work, and the provocative questions involving Vi and Scott concerning the environment of political correctness in pedagogical relationships and the slippery nature of exploitation only become muddied and lost when grounded upon cultural cliches.
In NonFiction, the less mechanical and derivative section of Storytelling, Solondz digs into the familiar territory of surburban misery and dysfunction. The story centers on Toby Oxman, (Paul Giamatti), a dejected shoe salesman who plans to make a documentary film about the underbelly of suburban high school, and the Livingstons, a middle-class Jewish-American family. Oxman finds his ideal protagonist in Scooby Livingston, an apathetic, strung-out, futureless student who spends most of his time organzing his CD collection and dreaming of being Conan O’Brien’s sidekick. Oxman follows Scooby through his nonexistent college search and his banal homelife. And here is Solondz at his best, using vicious situations and dialogues to dissect the world of the suburban middle-class. Many of the scenes revolve around the Livingston dinner table where Scooby, his two younger brothers, Brady, a football player worried about his school reputation, and Mikey, an inquisitive, petulant child dying for the recognition of his parents convene every evening. In one dinner scene, the topic of the Holocaust arises, and Fern Livingston (a damaged Julie Hagerty) comments to the kids that everyone is a survivor (you can see Solondz grinning). And that although none of their relatives were in the concentration camps, they did escape Germany, and thus the reason that the Livingstons are alive and eating dinner today. Using her logic of historical forces, Scooby comes to the conclusion that without Hitler none of us would be here either. His father, a bellowing and no-nonsense John Goodman, instantly dismisses him from the table.
Scenes such as these were at every turn in Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse, unabashedly funny yet critical of the inaneness of middle class life. But rather than push the story with scenes like the aforementioned, Solondz and his film falls into the trap of self-reflection. Oxman meets and reviews the documentary footage with his editor (Frankie Potente), and she accuses him of dislike and exploitation of his characters for the sake of entertaining his audience. Again, if this sounds like the aftermath of Happiness, it is. Solondz spent many interviews defending his attitude, claiming ambivalence and empathy toward his characters, and not disdain and mockery. Solondz continues to lampoon his critics as Oxman inteviews Goodman about the evils of college and the necessity of Scooby’s enrollment. Goodman angrily responds that just because Oxman didn’t have a good time, doesn’t mean he has to ruin it for everyone else, and tells him not to inflict his misery on the rest of the world. Rather than develop characters and move the story, Solondz would rather caricature detractors of his bleak worldview, and one is left wondering why even indulge them? There is even a sequence in Oxman’s documentary that is a send-up of American Beauty, where Oxman comments over images of the New Jersey suburbs that there is beauty in a lamp post. Here again, Solondz’s can’t help himself and he ridicules American Beauty the tamer, watered-down version of Happiness. As Nonfiction draws to a close, we find out that Scooby has gotten into Princeton, even though he wrote “FUCK YOU” in bubble letters during his SATs. Goodman pulled some strings and cheated the system, remarking that everyone does it. And after Brady falls into a coma due to a football accident, Mikey still vying for affection, hypnotizes his father and has him fire the Hispanic housekeeper, Consuelo. Feeling used and underappreciated, she exacts revenge in an explosive fashion on the Livingston household. Oxman thirsting for audience approval finally screens his documentary American Scooby (Solondz is dripping with sarcasm) for a hip, New York crowd, who yuck up the misery of the Livingstons. Scooby finds his way to the screening and leaves feeling, well, exploited.
The unfortunate result of Solondz’s self-indulgence and revenge tactics is that both sections of the film fall flat and stay on the surface of the issue that is at the heart of his filmmaking: exploitation. Storytelling is a misstep for Solondz, but even on his off days, he is still a more provocative and fascinating filmmaker than any of the hacks Hollywood has to offer. Hopefully his concern with the critical reception of his work rather than the work itself will be flushed out his system. But hope is something we shouldn’t anticipate in a future Solondz movie.