Almost alone among major DVD studios, New Line Cinema (a branch of Warner Bros.) has a somewhat archaic packaging habit. Aside from its insistence on the much-loathed cardboard “snapper case,” New Line likes to slap a one-word genre label on its DVD spines. This appears to be a hangover from the salad days of videocassettes, which were often labelled this way to assist the casual renter, but few other DVD producers do this. Anyway, a brief glance at the spines of several of my New Line discs confirms that The Wedding Singer is indeed a Comedy, The Sweet Hereafter is decidedly Drama, and so forth. So I had a chuckle at the expense of whoever was assigned to devise the helpful consumer label for Storytelling, the latest Todd Solondz gob in the eye of good taste, a Fine Line release distributed by New Line. That unlucky person must’ve had a few sleepless nights before settling on an ambitious two-word label: Dark Comedy.
Uh, yeah. Solondz, creator of the bitter gems Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness, has never been and probably will never be anyone’s go-to guy for frothy, light confections. A successful drinking game could be founded on any one of his films: do a shot every time a scene makes you cringe or look away in embarrassment. Storytelling has more than enough such moments in its modest running time, beginning with the notorious moment in the first of the movie’s two sections, titled “Fiction,” wherein a coolly dominating black creative-writing professor (Robert Wisdom) demands that his white student (Selma Blair) speak a particularly unspeakable phrase during coitus. Solondz appears to be the sole serious transgressor in American film, now that John Waters and Neil LaBute have abdicated the title, yet he’s not interested in shock so much as the friction it creates between characters. The obscenity in his work is usually rooted in emotion, not vulgarity or sexuality.
Solondz’ subject this time is the difficulty of finding truth in stories, whether the story is true or false. Either a story really happened but feels false in the telling, or a story is manipulated in the telling to falsify it. I much prefer the first segment “Fiction,” admittedly in large part because, as a former English major, I’ve sat in that class and heard the glittering banalities that students stammer out after a classmate has offered a story for group critique. “It was really emotional,” one girl says; “I really liked your word choices,” chirps another. Solondz just drills this stuff dead center. The Selma Blair character, Vi, is dating Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), a boy with cerebral palsy, who writes and laboriously reads aloud a blatantly autobiographical story that has “painfully earnest” written all over it. Vi goes out with Marcus because he has CP and she figured he’d be “different” — i.e., not like the other jerks she’s been with, presumably. But Solondz refuses to sentimentalize: Marcus is as objectionable and neurotic as anyone else in the movie — self-pitying, using his condition as a cudgel, quick to accuse others of patronizing him but behaving in a way that almost invites it.
Right up to its (ahem) climactic shocking clinch¹ and its bitter aftermath, “Fiction” is a small masterwork — a poisonous bonbon exactly as long as it needs to be to make its point. Indeed, it’s very much like the sort of “aggressively confrontational” short fiction that might be written by Mr. Scott, the professor who so decisively overturns Vi’s “Don’t be racist” mantra to herself. By now, Solondz has heard all the arguments against himself, and he has puckishly taken many of the charges raised against his previous films and put them in the mouths of the creative-writing students. (We also hear a bit of it from the documentary editor in “Non-Fiction.”) Like the best short stories, it focuses on a minimum of incidents and expands in meaning and impact.
Inevitably, the companion piece, the nearly hour-long “Non-Fiction,” looks a bit pallid in comparison, despite very fine work by the always entertaining Paul Giamatti as Toby Oxman (named after Solondz’ regular editor Alan Oxman?), a loser who fancies himself a documentary filmmaker. Armed with a camcorder and a shaggy cameraman (in a true casting coup, Solondz got Mike Schank, of the modern-classic documentary American Movie, to fill the role), Toby sets out to capture the Reality of the Suburban Teenager Post-Columbine (his subject actually seems to change depending on the person he’s pitching to). He happens across Scooby (Mark Webber), a stoner with no ambition except maybe to, like, get his own talk show or something. Scooby is being pressured by his furiously disdainful father (John Goodman, his forehead veins throbbing) and meek mother (Julie Hagerty, as fragile-sounding as ever) to take the SATs and apply to a college; the family’s maid (Lupe Ontiveros) is politely interrogated by the youngest child (Jonathan Osser), who reveals himself to be quite the manipulative little fuck; Scooby’s closeted gay friend bashfully asks if he can go down on Scooby, and Scooby shrugs and lies back; and so on.
Little of this has much to do with storytelling, and the point Solondz makes here — that Toby will arrange the footage to make Scooby and his family look ridiculous, turning Scooby’s goal of attaining effortless fame against him — isn’t terribly fresh. (Predictably, the clips we see of Toby’s project look awful, complete with pretentious narration and a possible swipe at the breeze-blown detritus in American Beauty.) Solondz keeps the camera on Scooby looking hurt and betrayed as he eavesdrops on a screening of the footage; the audience guffaws at Scooby, much as we’ve been doing. Is this a stab at us, or is Solondz also including himself in the critique (I can’t help noticing that Giamatti has been made to look more than a little like Solondz)? Whatever the case, “Non-Fiction” feels sour and unresolved, and doesn’t seem to have a purpose other than as a companion piece to “Fiction” that will make the film feature-length. I wish Solondz had either come up with three compelling stories of equal length, or tied the two segments together somehow (Vi could’ve easily been made Scooby’s older sister in college — or, hell, maybe she is; we’re never told otherwise).
Still, even weak Solondz is stronger than most anything else around. Lupe Ontiveros, brilliant in Chuck & Buck, scores again here as a woman carrying deep sadness she can never express. The scenes between her and the perky, unconsciously insulting little boy (or is it unconscious?) are loathsome in just the right way. Giamatti gets one of those golden Solondz moments right at the start, when Toby phones a former high-school classmate he’d once neglected to take to the prom; the camera stays nailed to Toby as the woman on the other end quietly lashes him with the indifference of her tone and he just bleeds and twists in the wind. But once Solondz places his focus on Scooby (as if in capitulation to the father, who demands that “the focus is Scooby, or nothing”), Giamatti largely recedes behind the camcorder, and some of the material feels second-hand or even self-cannibalized — Solondz has laid bare the crawling things under the rock of sunny suburbia before.
There’s more than enough reason to see Storytelling, even in the less impressive second chapter, but perhaps Solondz has drawn water from this poisoned well one time too many. Maybe he needs to take a page from Neil LaBute, who now seems interested in stories beyond setting up characters and knocking them into the mud. Fellow Jerseyite Kevin Smith is expanding his horizons beyond Jay and Silent Bob, too. It may be time for Solondz to move on, unless he feels there’s even more sickness and dysfunction to sweep out of the closets of the suburbs. Who knows, there might be.
¹ Which, by the way, is shown in full in the unrated version on the DVD, but covered up with an ostentatious red box to appease the MPAA for the R-rated version — I watched the R-rated version of the scene out of curiosity, and it looks completely ludicrous, as Solondz meant it to. But Solondz has his revenge on DVD — how many people do you think will opt for the R-rated version over the unrated version on the same disc? Sadly, the VHS version is available only as the red-box version.