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When Characters and Camera Are Flawed

In 'Storytelling,' filmmaker Todd Solondz returns to suburbia for a virtuosic look at the limits of humanity and fiction.


With "Storytelling," Todd Solondz continues his acidly funny exploration of the darker side of life in the suburbs of New Jersey that began with "Welcome to the Dollhouse" (1996) and "Happiness" (1998). This time he also probes the ambiguous, paradoxical nature of filmmaking in its relationship to fictional and documental narrative. Solondz contemplates the awesome capacities of the motion picture camera, which can exploit and distort the reality that it can record or simulate with precision. Beyond this, Solondz suggests that the limitless possibilities of the camera inevitably connect fatefully with the very human limitations of the filmmaker, including himself.

As for how all this speculative subtext applies to Solondz and "Storytelling," let it be said that while playing all his cards face up he conflates the fictional and the documental with a bravura that enriches his film's meanings and endows it with a level of humanity that sustains his caustic view of human behavior. None of this intellectualizing is necessary to the simple enjoyment of "Storytelling"--provided the viewer has a taste for the pitch-black humor that emerges when Solondz's camera becomes a veritable blowtorch aimed at humanity's myriad failings.

"Storytelling" is divided into two parts: a curtain-raiser set circa 1985 and called "Fiction," and "Nonfiction," set in the present.

"Fiction" takes its title from a college course conducted by a Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), an imposing African American who has won a Pulitzer Prize for his book "A Sunday Lynching."

He is a man of seething rage, which he controls with the same rigor with which he judges his students' work. In the class are Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), who's afflicted with cerebral palsy and who is enmeshed in a rocky affair with Vi (Selma Blair), who had hoped that Marcus' condition would set him apart from most of the jerks she's dated. The interplay among these three, and a third student, Catherine (Aleksa Palladino), whose assessments of her fellow students' work is as withering as those of their professor, becomes scabrously funny. This vignette is a cautionary tale of the perils of overly autobiographical fiction, and of naivete, sexual and otherwise. It is also a commentary on how racism can cut both ways.

In what may be the film's key remark, the taciturn Mr. Scott tells his class that all writing is fiction. It's an observation that applies to Part 2, "Nonfiction," in the sense that it might have been helpful, to say the least, if fledgling documentarian Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) had pondered the possibility that at some level all filmmaking is fictional, no matter how strenuously the documentary maker strives for objectivity.

Toby is a nerdy guy in his 30s who in high school had fantasies of movie stardom, followed by dreams of becoming a novelist. Now this Manhattan shoe store salesman has decided that becoming a documentary filmmaker may be more within his reach.

Armed with banal preconceptions and a video cameraman (Mike Schank), Toby descends on his old high school with a vague idea of concentrating on the challenge of getting into college. He ends up focusing on Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), a disaffected senior who knows only that he doesn't want to go to college but does want to become famous, perhaps as a talk show host like his idol, Conan O'Brien. Dinnertime at the Livingstone home, a spacious, modern structure, is a terrifically tense business.

Scooby is a sullen vegetarian eternally at odds with his father, Marty (John Goodman), a chronically irate bully. His vapid mother, Fern (Julie Hagerty), is forever trying to smooth things over; his younger jock brother, Brady (Noah Fleiss), has to cope with his older brother's negative, possibly gay, image at school; and his youngest brother, Mikey (Jonathan Osser), an obnoxiously smug and precocious fifth-grader, hungers for his parents' love.

It is the luckless fate of Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros, peerless as always), an El Salvador immigrant, to be the Livingstons' conscientious live-in housekeeper. Steve Railsback is the high school principal whose lack of interest in Toby's project is total, and Franka Potente is Toby's unimpressed editor.

There is much that is funny, much that is terrible and much that becomes terribly funny about this wealthy household, its heart and soul shriveling in its privileged insularity. This sequence and therefore the film build to a climactic sequence that in playing against expectations attests to the boldness and skill of Solondz and his ace cinematographer, Frederick Elmes, an indie cinema maestro whose credits reach all the way back to David Lynch's bizarre debut feature, "Eraserhead."

Indeed, "Storytelling" is a virtuoso work in every aspect in which Solondz shakes a fist at the inescapability of human limitations colliding with the perversity of fate.


MPAA rating: R, for strong sexual content, language and some drug use. Times guidelines: The film is strictly for sophisticated adult audiences.


Paul Giamatti ... Toby Oxman

Mark Webber ... Scooby Livingston

John Goodman ... Marty Livingston

Julie Hagerty ... Fern Livingston

Lupe Ontiveros ... Consuelo

Selma Blair ... Vi

Robert Wisdom ... Mr. Scott

Leo Fitzpatrick ... Marcus

A Fine Line Features presentation. Writer-director Todd Solondz. Producers Ted Hope, Christine Vachon. Executive producers David Linde, Amy Hankels, Mike De Luca. Cinematographer Frederick Elmes. Editor Alan Oxman. Music Belle & Sebastian, Nathan Larson. Costumes John Dunn. Production designer James Chinlund. Art director Judy Rhee. Set decorator Jennifer Alex Nickason. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.

Exclusively at the Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500, and the NuWilshire, 1314 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 394-8099.

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