Storytelling: Todd Solonz’s Satire, Starring Giamatti and Selma Blair

The same darkly humorous sensibility that defined Todd Solondz’s earlier pictures is at work in his new satire, Storytelling, except that the novelty has worn out and the notoriously acerbic vision is now contained in a deliberately fractured narrative that leaves a lot to be desired in text, tone and tempo.

Targeting its barbs at the severely flawed American educational institution –teachers, students, and their parents — this is very much a companion piece to the far superior coming-of-age satire, Welcome to the Dollhouse, Solondz’s most commercial film to date. Mixed to negative reviews are likely to relegate this extremely humble film to the specialized art house circuit, where it’s likely to please the auteur’s hardcore fans but will not recruit many new viewers.

What’s most disappointing about Storytelling is its small scale, lack of aspiration, and far too familiar approach. In its unassertive execution, the new film feels like an early effort, rather than a mature follow-up to the challenging and controversial Happiness, Solondz’s most ambitious and accomplished feature to date. In this respect, Solondz’s career, now at a crucially vulnerable phase, takes a major step backward.

Originally conceived as a three-part tale, Storytelling is now comprised of two asymmetrical segments: The first, “Fiction,” is set in 1985, and runs about 25 minutes. The second, “Non-Fiction,” is set at the present and occupies about an hour. Solondz advises viewers not to look for any link between the acts. However, since the former is about college students and the latter about high-schoolers, there are plenty of thematic connections, with both dealing in a comic, sometimes ironic manner with such potentially explosive issues as sexual exploitation by teachers, politically incorrect racism, dysfunctional suburban families (a favorite Solondz’ topic), and obsession with celebrity as it afflicts contemporary American culture.

In “Fiction,” Solondz explores the tangled web of emotions and relationships between a creative writing professor, Mr. Gary Scott (Robert Wisdom), an attractive black writer who teaches at a third-rate college, and three of his white students: Vi (Selma Blair), Marcus (Kids’ Leo Fitzpatrick) and Catherine (Aleksa Palladino). Resentful and bitter that the Pulitzer Prize has not opened any doors for him, Scott expresses his anger by seducing his female students and then destroying them in the classroom.

The “shock” values in this segment have to do with S&M sex, revenge, and teachers projecting their worst prejudices on their students. Ten years ago, these elements would have been risque, but, partly due to Solondz’s efforts himself, they are by-now familiar. The whole act feels schematically calculated, as if the director was trying to imagine what would be the most mean-spirited reaction of students to an untalented classmate, or what would be the most offensive stereotype of a black male teacher.

The second, prolonged act, compensates for the feeling that the first was sort of a warm-up, a one-joke segment. More expansive in scope, “Non-Fiction” centres on a Jewish klutz named Toby Oxman (a splendid Paul Giamatti), an ambitious but unfulfilled New Yorker, who works at a shoe-store. Using his limited persuasive powers, Toby talks a bright but unmotivated high-school senior, Scooby Livingston (Mark Weber), and his bourgeois parents (John Goodman and Julie Hagerty) into becoming the subjects of a documentary about teenage life in suburbia, hence allowing him to invade their house and in the process change their lives.

A failure in every way, Toby comes across as a sincere, sympathetic character, who means well, but certainly not a huckster. He follows Scooby as he interacts with his haughty upscale parents, obnoxious siblings, and various classmates, including a gay classmate (a staple character in Solondz’s work), who comes onto Scooby and gives him a blow job. Defying his parents’ high hopes, Scooby intends to skip college (there are some good joke about the all-important SAT exams) and take his time in planning his future. Forced to express a fantasy future career, he says he won’t mind being a TV show host like Conan O’Brien, who appears in the film as himself.

The most farcical sequences here, like in Welcome to the Dollhouse, are those depicting family dinners, particularly the one in which Scooby’s earnest, philanthropic mother makes a strong case why they should consider themselves Holocaust survivors, even though no member of the immediate family had actually suffered. Interactions between Mikey (Jonathan Osser), the brightest and most inquisitive son, and Salvadorian housekeeper (Lupe Ontiveros) are sharply observed, leading to a disastrous conclusion.

As in Happiness, Solondz explores the issues of exploitation and manipulation in all their ugly manifestations, be their racial, sexual, educational, and familial. That viewers can by now anticipate the specific paths and turns Solondz is taking, including a trite and unsatisfying denoument, speaks volumes to his success in creating a uniquely droll sensibility, but also suggests that as a filmmaker he needs to move in different and new directions, or else risks repetition.

Solondz is usually very good with his ensembles, and the uneven acting in new picture may be a direct result of the irregular quality of the writing. In the first act, the performances are uniformly good and more naturalistic, whereas in the second, Giamatti and Webb render fluent and credible work, whereas Goodman and Hagerty come across as caricatures.

Watching Hagerty in this picture brings to mind Her role in Albert Brooks’ Lost in America, and the treatment of film within film, the moral responsibility of documentarians to their subject, and the notions of neutrality and ambiguity recall Brooks’ terrific, ahead of its time satire, Real Life.

Technical credits, including Frederick Elmes’ cinematography, are extremely modest.