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With: Selma Blair, Leo Fitzpatrick, Robert Wisdom, Mark Webber, John Goodman, Julie Hagerty, Jonathan Osser, Noah Fleiss, Lupe Ontiveros, Paul Giamatti, Franka Potente
Written by: Todd Solondz
Directed by: Todd Solondz
MPAA Rating: R for strong sexual content, language and some drug use
Running Time: 87
Date: 05/12/2001

Storytelling (2002)

3 Stars (out of 4)

The Story of Stories

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Todd Solondz may or may not be the real thing, but he doeselicit strong reactions. Everyone seems to love his breakthroughfeature, Welcome to the Dollhouse (1996), but his follow-upHappiness (1998) proved far more difficult; some defend it with vigor,some dismiss it with venom.

His new film Storytelling seems destined for the same fate.

I gave Happiness a rave review back in 1998, but my feelings toward it have deteriorated since then, even though I've only seen it once. My initial reaction to Storytelling is equally enthusiastic, but I wonder if it, too, will degrade in time.

Moviegoers should know that the two-part Storytelling is missing a third segment that was shot with "Dawson's Creek" alum James Van Der Beek. Apparently Solondz decided that -- star power or no star power -- the segment just didn't work, so it hit the cutting room floor.

The two remaining segments consist of the relatively short "Fiction" and the one-plus-hour "Non-Fiction."

Of the two, "Fiction" intrigued me more, perhaps because it was so short and didn't go any farther than necessary to make its point. The wonderful Selma Blair stars as Vi, a creative writing student who sleeps with a classmate, Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick). Marcus suffers from cerebral palsy and writes stories about his handicap. Their African American teacher, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), is a published snob who's not afraid to compare his students' stories to excrement.

In a short amount of time, Solondz manages to make razor-sharp points about our views on race and handicapped people. Vi has an affair with her teacher, who, in the heat of passion, makes her call him degrading racial slurs. And for all her punk posturing (she has pink hair), Vi is unable to tell Marcus that his stories stink -- just because he writes about his real-life disease, it doesn't make the story real.

The second segment, "Non-Fiction," also offers some cultural commentary. Paul Giamatti plays a loser documentary filmmaker named Toby Oxman who attempts to make a film about a "real" high school kid and the decisions he makes on a day-to-day basis. Solondz establishes Toby right off the bat with in a throwaway scene where he awkwardly calls up an old high school flame out of his yearbook only to find that she's married and has kids.

"Non-Fiction" continually raises the question about whether or not Toby is making fun of his doc subject, a slacker named Scooby (Mark Webber) who smokes pot and allows his gay friend to "service" him, even though he's straight. (John Goodman and Julie Hagerty play his clueless parents.) It's no surprise that Scooby aces his SAT with a minimum of fuss and gets to go to the college of his choice, even though he has no idea what he wants to do with his life -- he thinks he might want to be the next Conan O'Brien but is not really sure what that entails.

On the whole, Storytelling seems based on ugly ideas instead of ugly behavior, as Happiness was. (Happiness also had a predilection for bodily fluids that Storytelling happily foregoes.) Hence, Storytelling is far more appealing. Moreover, it seems aimed at anyone who ever voiced some opinion about Happiness, either negative or positive. It asks simultaneously "why is this movie here?" and "why do we bother to tell any story at all?"

Typical of Solondz, he leaves us alone to ponder the answer.

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