With this two-part invention on the theme of storytelling and its repercussions, writer-director Todd Solondz manages to push the envelope of scurrilous satire a little further than he already has. And that’s saying quite a bit, since the most sympathetic character in his last film, Happiness, was an active child molester.
Solondz has mastered the dubious art of making his audience feel uncomfortable and amused at the same time, of arousing our latent feelings of smug disdain when confronted with the grotesque, only to scuttle our laughter with all-too-human twists and turns. Not everyone appreciates this sort of manipulation, and the charge most often leveled against Solondz is that his attitude toward his characters — and us — is one of cruel condescension. But there’s little in Solondz’s work that is that simple or unambiguous.
The first part of Storytelling is called “Fiction,” and from the beginning we feel as though we’re being tested. A young college student, Vi (Selma Blair), is having sex with her boyfriend, Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick, who was the ghastly Telly in Larry Clark’s Kids). Marcus has cerebral palsy, and just as we’re settling into a mood of enlightened empathy, he starts to whine to Vi that the kinkiness has gone out of their love life. “You’ve become kind,” he complains.
Vi and Marcus are students in a creative-writing class that is lorded over by the black Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), author of A Sunday Lynching. Mr. Scott, radiating a malevolent dignity, listens to the horrid dribblings of his charges before chopping them off at the knees with a few curt, critical comments.
Later, Vi allows herself to be picked up by Mr. Scott at a bar, and back at his place they engage in rough sex while he encourages her to assail him with racist epithets (the sex is blocked out by a huge, ostentatiously red box, which is Solondz’s response to an MPAA request to delete the scene). Obviously, Mr. Scott isn’t a happy camper, but then it’s a long trip down from the Pulitzer to a classroom full of clueless kids, whatever your race. Vi turns the incident into a short story, and when she reads it to her writing class, she’s criticized by her fellow students for what they perceive as its gratuitous and disgusting non-PC elements. Mr. Scott, meanwhile, thinks it’s the best piece of work she’s done yet.
The film’s second and twice-as-long section is called “Non-Fiction.” This is the story of a would-be documentary filmmaker and former shoe salesman, Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), who has some vague idea about making a film examining the world of post-Columbine high school students and who finds his subject in the person of one Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber). Scooby, who has the prematurely jaded and blurry demeanor of someone who has been on a strict marijuana diet since kindergarten, comes from a comfortably suburban (i.e. fatally dysfunctional) family headed by Marty (John Goodman) and Fern (Julie Hagerty), and rounded out by his brothers, Brady (Noah Fliess) and Mikey (Jonathan Osser), the latter being the personification of evil in the guise of a sweet little kid.
“Non-Fiction” is as lumpy and scattershot as “Fiction” is tight and controlled. Ineffectual potshots are taken at American Beauty and Chris Smith’s American Movie (Toby’s film is to be called American Scooby). And the whole suburban family thing barely rises above acerbic skit material, though the seemingly guileless Mikey’s subtle verbal torturing of the family’s El Salvadoran maid (Lupe Ontiverus) is an original and unsettling touch. But when Toby’s film meets with a fate similar to that of Vi’s short story, Solondz’s didactic intentions seem especially artless, and a final moralizing punch line lands with a heavy thud.
Like Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, this is Solondz’s answering-my-critics film, though none of the answers are particularly straight — and the best response he can come up with to the charge of condescending cruelty is Toby Oxman, who sets out to make a serious film and ends up with what is generally perceived as a dark comedy.
Of course, storytelling is a particularly complicated form of lying, and bound to inspire unexpected and sometimes unwanted interpretations. So is Solondz saying that his unsavory reputation is all the audience’s fault? But then the Livingstons are a funny family, aren’t they?
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.