Todd Solondz’s Storytelling opens on January 25th, and we all know that nothing really good — foreign-language films excepted — opens in January. January is where the major studios dump their mistakes. Mandy Moore in A Walk to Remember and Cuba Gooding Jr. in Snow Dogs — that’s what opens in January. But in Storytelling we have a movie that advances the career of a demonstrably gifted filmmaker, a fearlessly funny movie whose laughs draw blood, a bracingly provocative movie that won’t apologize for its bad temper.
Take the scene in which Selma Blair’s Vi, a college student, goes home with her black college prof (Robert Wisdom), and the Pulitzer Prize-winning stud tells her to strip, face the wall and shout, “Nigger, fuck me hard!” That scene is offensive six ways from Sunday. But Solondz wants to flip cliched takes on sexism and racism until we start questioning who’s exploiting whom.
Toning down the sex so he could avoid an NC-17 rating, Solondz amplified the technique Stanley Kubrick used for the orgy scene in Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick inserted little boxes to obscure the bumping of uglies. Solondz enlarges the boxes — they’re as big as the monolith in Kubrick’s 2001 — and in so doing makes a wicked joke of censorship.
Solondz has always sided with outsiders, such as those from the New Jersey burbs that spawned him. Fear, Anxiety and Depression made an apt title for his 1989 debut film. In 1995’s Welcome to the Dollhouse, he shared the pain of Dawn Wiener, the seventh-grader whom the in-crowd dissed as “Wienerdog.” In 1998’s Happiness, a pedophile, a phone-sex stalker and a fat-girl killer won more sympathy than the so-called pillars of the community. For Solondz, cruel action invariably springs from the placid face of normalcy.
Storytelling opens with Vi — Blair (Legally Blonde) is strikingly good — having sweaty sex. Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), the boy she’s sitting on, displays jerky movements and speech. He’s not orgasmic; he has cerebral palsy. Marcus complains that Vi has become “less kinky, too nice.” He wants to read her the story he did for the writing class they both take with black author Gary Scott (Wisdom is formidably fierce). The time is 1985, and Gary is slumming in this third-tier New Jersey college. His critique of Marcus’ mawkish story is ruthless. The other students offer something worse: smug condescension (“It’s like Faulkner, but East Coast and disabled”).
Far more punishing is Vi’s attempt to seduce Gary, leading to an anal-sex scene that plays like a Mandingo joke. Humiliated, Vi writes the story as a rape and reads it in class to get even. But the students nail Vi as “a spoiled suburban white girl with a Benetton complex.” Gary lets Vi squirm, dismissing as a callow defense her pleas that what he did to her really happened. As Gary says, “Once you start writing, it all becomes fiction.”
You might say that Gary’s argument defines Storytelling, which Solondz divides into two parts: “Fiction,” the Vi story that runs for barely half an hour, and “Non-Fiction,” the second chapter that runs twice that length and suffers some loss in impact. “Non-Fiction” concerns Toby Oxman (the reliably excellent Paul Giamatti), a shoe salesman who fancies himself a documentarian. A loser in high school, Toby is eager to show teen angst as it really is. He focuses on Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber is a find), a New Jersey high school kid whose idea of a documentary is The Blair Witch Project. Pothead Scooby cares little for school or sex; he indifferently lets a guy pal blow him. He does manage to goad his Jewish parents about how their family escaped the Nazis (“Without Hitler, I wouldn’t have been born”), but Mom (Julie Hagerty) and Dad (John Goodman) bluster to no avail. As the subjects of Toby’s film, Scooby, his younger brothers — the jock Brady (Noah Fleiss) and the conniving Mikey (Jonathan Osser) — and their parents also become targets. Solondz uses Toby as a surrogate to show how storytelling implicates the teller in distortion and moral compromise. But Solondz is not blind to suffering. The Livingstons heap neglect on their Salvadorean maid, Consuelo (the superb Lupe Ontiveros, of Chuck and Buck), whose plight — her son has been executed for rape and murder — results in the tragedy that ends the film.
The great cinematographer Frederick Elmes (Blue Velvet) gives Storytelling what production designer James Chinlund calls a “melancholy, dirty-underwear kind of feeling” that suits the hypocrisy Solondz indicts. Solondz’s barbs at suburban toxicity extend to what he thinks are bogus films on the topic, such as the Oscar-winning American Beauty. Toby’s film, American Scooby, features a bag blowing in the wind.
Yes, Solondz may be self-indulgent by skewering his critics, who accuse his films of being cruel and twisted and then write reviews that taunt the filmmaker as a geek, a spaz, an exploiter who deserves to be bent over his editing console and violated. Solondz is obviously touching a nerve. Still, his movie resonates because he stays alert to even the slight gradations of pain inflicted in the name of storytelling. Few filmmakers have the power to tilt the world so we see it in a new light. Solondz is one of them.