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Tales From the Dark Side

Todd Solondz's Uncomfortably True Stories

Unhappiness: John Goodman and Julie Hagerty and Selma Blair (below) play the hands Todd Solondz deals them.

By Eric Allen Hatch | Posted

with only two films, Todd Solondz has become one of the most divisive artists in American film. His acclaimed dark comedies Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995) and Happiness (1998) made audiences laugh at painful topics like child abuse, suicidal depression, and middle school. He's also come under attack as a misanthrope--racist, sexist, and insensitive to the disabled. With Storytelling, Solondz has pointedly crafted content that is openly racist, sexist, and insensitive to the disabled. Predictably, controversy has ensued. An entire plot line was excised, reportedly because of James Van Der Beek's discomfort with having played a homosexual. Further, a sex scene in the finished film that is obscured by a huge red rectangle represents both an act of censorship and a bizarre comment on our own prurience: There's never a doubt as to what act is being committed. It's hard to imagine any restorations making Storytelling as note-perfect as Dollhouse or as provocative as Happiness, but even in expurgated form it remains a lively, challenging work by a smart filmmaker.

Storytelling is divided into two segments. The shorter first piece, "Fiction," eavesdrops on a collegiate creative-writing course presided over by Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), a stern, confrontational African-American author. His WASPish aspiring scribes lie, speak with malicious honesty, and stab each other in the back as they vie for their teacher's approval. Particularly transformed by the class are Marcus (Kids' Leo Fitzpatrick) and Vi (Selma Blair), the former a determined young man with cerebral palsy, the latter his bored, boring girlfriend. The second story, "Non-Fiction," follows Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), a hapless documentary filmmaker embarking on a cinéma-vérité study of the contemporary high-school student. Toby's camera follows Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), a privileged New Jersey slacker who fantasizes about hosting his own talk show. Scooby has no plan for attaining this goal and willingly expends energy on nothing, aggravating his numbingly suburban parents (John Goodman and Julie Hagerty). Scooby is also probably gay--on those rare occasions when he exhibits any libido whatsoever. Meanwhile, for live-in maid Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros), life has become a thankless parade of stains, spills, and indignities, often at the hands of the youngest Livingston, Mikey (Jonathan Osser).

Solondz fills "Fiction" with unsettling truths and "Non-Fiction" with stock contrivances, but Storytelling transcends this facile juxtaposition. The more potent piece is the first, driven by Solondz's graphic coupling of a powerful African-American with one of his white pupils; the fact that audiences squirm at these images, and then recoil from their squirming, says much about Solondz's gift for confronting society's buried prejudices. "Fiction" depicts modern sexuality as a slavish endeavor impossible without derogatory role-playing that ultimately damages both participants. Solondz also questions our maniacal obsession with race, asking if minorities empower themselves within the white power structure only by employing racist stereotypes to instill fear.

"Non-Fiction" is no less bleak, but perhaps less original. Both Albert Brooks' Real Life (1979) and Jim McBride's David Holzman's Diary (1968) captured the chaos and self-aggrandization of encounters between suburban families and cynical documentary crews; Scooby's nuclear family closely resembles that of Solondz's own Dollhouse. Still, these precedents don't override Solondz's unique talent for unveiling the dark humor behind life's ugliest moments. Particularly well observed is Scooby's brother Brady (Noah Fleiss) and his Machiavellian assessment of his sibling's sexuality: fine with him, until it interferes with his own reputation at school. The beleaguered Consuelo poignantly represents real humans shattered by serving America's oblivious monied classes (and Solondz's surprising specificity in outlining her past suggests a metaphor for the United States' predatory economic relationship with Latin America).

Mike Schank, the amiable sidekick from the actual documentary American Movie, plays Toby's amiable sidekick Mike, providing an auto-critique of our own willingness to laugh at real people's failings on screen and opening the door to a sympathetic decoding of Solondz's work. We can't assume the content of a work literally expresses its creator's beliefs; Happiness alienated many who felt it lacked sympathetic characters, but good samaritans do not a dark comedy make. Solondz always walks a fine line between sadistically reveling in his characters' misfortunes and reproving us for doing the same. Schank's presence offers a glimpse of the separation between Solondz's creations, despicable for their embodiment of our worst traits, and real people. (Mike is the only speaking character who doesn't do something terrible or have something terrible done to him.) When the dust clears, Storytelling may be the work of a mean-spirited, depressive cynic positing a world full of irrational race, class, and gender hang-ups--but he may have also dared us to take another look at our own treatment of others.

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