Director Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) barges forth with his third film.
Why do we watch movies? For that matter, why do we pursue any form of entertainment? Typically it's to be entertained. Occasionally a creator can utilize a form of entertainment to get across some sort of point. The very pretentious American Beauty attempted to make a film about a mid-life crisis, for example. It the early days of film, Nazi Germany created numerous propaganda pieces to get across the fact that the current leadership of Germany was cool. Unfortunately, the message can be lost if the vehicle fails to entertain the audience. Maybe there's something to this Shakespeare guy after all.
This brings us to Todd Solondz's third film, Storytelling, a film split into two very distinct stories that try to hammer home a message with biting satire and dark humor. I've not seen either of Solondz's other films, though I've heard very good things about them, and this had me very much looking forward to Storytelling. All I'll say at this point is that I really hope his other two films are better than this.
Facts of the Case
In the first story, called "Fiction," Solondz follows the story of Vi (Selma Blair, Cruel Intentions, Legally Blonde), a college student in a writing course who is also sleeping with a guy inflicted by cerebral palsy for some sort of cheap thrills and so she'll have something to write about. The writing course is brutal, thanks in no part to the hard case professor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom, The Heist). When Vi encounters Mr. Scott after hours in a bar, what follows is a bizarre sexual encounter that should give her plenty of writing material.
The second story, called "Non-Fiction," deals with a shoe salesman and hack would-be filmmaker, Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti, Big Fat Liar, Private Parts), who's involved with making a documentary about "real" suburban life. Toby's primary subject is the Livingston family, focusing mainly on Scooby (Mark Webber), a lethargic, ambivalent, bi-sexual, drug-using Gen-Xer whose only desire in life is to become Conan O'Brien's sidekick. Scooby dreams of fame and fortune without having any sort of desire to work towards his goals, thinking that things will just kind of happen. Scooby's lofty plans are not exactly helped along by his parents, his placating mother Fern (Julie Hagerty, Airplane!) and his heavy-handed father Marty (John Goodman, The Big Lebowski, Fallen).
Storytelling is one of those "artsy-fartsy" movies that "film snobs" seem to like, but after watching Storytelling, I can't say if they're just saying they like the film so they can seem "down with it" or "cool." As for myself, I was just simply "bored" by Storytelling, and this really speaks to what I was saying earlier, that an unentertaining film will have any message lost to its audience if they've nodded off. Unfortunately, Storytelling became a sorry reminder that I was still awake.
The characters in Storytelling are at the real heart of the problems with the movie, as Solondz seems to have an air of condescension towards each of the characters he's created. Every person in this film comes across as flat, one-dimensional, insipid, spiteful and mean-spirited, and there's no good that can come from a film where there's no protagonist to cheer on and identify with. If you don't care about the characters, why would you care about what they're trying to say? Vi looks for cheap thrills without regard to herself or to the feelings of others. Scooby is every problem Generation X possesses rolled into one disenfranchised character and expects his 15 minutes to be handed to him. Mr. Scott is a sexually deviant racist. Scooby's younger brother Mikey displays the condescending traits of those around him by tormenting and getting the Livingston housekeeper fired while expecting said housekeeper to be there to clean up his messes. Toby blatantly rips off images and themes from American Beauty. (It probably didn't help that I didn't really like American Beauty to begin with.)
Another major problem that I had with Storytelling would be Solondz's perceptions of what the critics were going to write about Storytelling, perhaps from shortcomings from his previous works. Characters will do and act in a certain way, only to have the problems with their behavior (i.e. the problems with the story) pointed out to them by another character. Toby is taken to task by his editor (Franka Potente, Run Lola Run, The Princess And The Warrior) for ripping off American Beauty, but it's something that the audience already sees and knows about the character. Is this cleverness on Solondz's part? It's clever if this happens once, maybe twice in a film, but when it happens consistently it becomes tiresome. I got the feeling Solondz was going through a self-congratulatory stage of his career by showing us just how clever he can be. Characters in "Fiction" are called a cliché by the other characters with the audience knowing full well that they are, and when they're not called cliché, they're called vulgar when they're being vulgar. I can't figure if Solondz was secretly working in some sort of irony or not, but if he was only he's aware of it.
Solondz tries to get his points in Storytelling across by simply trying to shock the audience. The sexual encounter between Vi and Mr. Scott is nothing short of disturbing, and Vi's handicapped boyfriend tries to use his disability to his advantage in the writing class, hoping that people will like his stories by taking pity on him. I got the feeling that I was watching Solondz attempt to become the next John Waters, and while I really am not a fan of Waters, I can honestly say that Waters can at least be disturbing and creative at the same time. Or, rather, Waters can at least be entertaining. Solondz chooses to hit the audience in the face with a shovel to get his point across, and it's a trait I've never been fond of in any form of entertainment.
Speaking of which, I had a pretty difficult time trying to determine exactly what Solondz was trying to say. As I mentioned, I got the feeling that Solondz approached each of these characters with an attitude of condescension, and I couldn't help but think that these were all people that Solondz knows in some way and that this was his manner of thumbing his nose at them. Let me relate a small story about myself. Back during my college days I took a couple of creative writing courses, with the second one being judiciously governed by a harsh shrew of a professor who, on the very first day, stated that she detested genre fiction (D'OH!). I knew I was in for a long semester. One thing that I observed in the class was that no matter what you did, a character that anybody created that a reader could identify with, it was instantly cast off as "cliché," while any attempt to make a non-cliché character was cast off as unrealistic. Imagine the fun when I called the whole class a bunch of hypocrites. (At least a one person in the class got my point, and she was just as fed up as I was.) Anyway, Solondz's writing course depicted in "Fiction" smacked very deeply of realism, so I couldn't help but think that his own fragile ego had been disparaged during one of these course and that Storytelling was his own petty and immature attempt at revenge. Looking at Storytelling, it's an ugly, unapologetic, in-your-face piece of writing, being horribly mean-spirited throughout with no discernible point. Or, if the point was there it was simply too obvious. Perhaps I "got it" but I simply didn't care. After spending thirty minutes watching "Fiction" to get to a four-word punchline, my reaction was, "What the *&$!" And that should honestly be the first words out of anybody's mouth after watching "Fiction," because after spending thirty minutes to get to a sentence that isn't funny, poignant, or meaningful in any way (and one that, due to my previous experience, I saw coming a mile away), you're definitely not going to be in the mood to watch another hour of a movie.
Other random thoughts I had while watching Storytelling:
• Has John Goodman ever done a bad acting job in anything that he's been in? Sure, he's done a few bad movies, but he's never acted poorly in any of them. Goodman is without a doubt the sole high point of Storytelling.
• As a director and a writer, why would you start a story with a five minute phone conversation during which only one participant can be heard and keep only one camera angle? It's amateurish, non-dynamic, and hard on the eyes of the viewer. This part of the movie was used to establish that Toby is a pathetic loser and a hack, and I personally could have found at least fifty other ways to establish this facet of the character.
• Franka Potente definitely looks better with dark hair, or even with bright red hair. Her turn as a blonde in The Princess and the Warrior was a bit of a turnoff.
• Mmmmm…Mountain Dew. Mmmmm…Gummi Bears.
• Paul Giamatti always manages to play a rather convincing schmuck. It might be the whiny, nasally voice, or it might not. He certainly turned this into gold with Big Fat Liar, but his defining moment was portraying Pig Vomit in Private Parts.
• When Solondz wrote this script, do you think he wrote in Conan O'Brien and then begged O'Brien to make an appearance in his film? Or do you think he got Conan O'Brien to agree to do the film first and then finished the script? I often wonder the same thing about Being John Malkovich and consequently wonder if it would have had the same impact if the film had been called Being Ben Affleck or Being Carrot Top.
The video presentation is a gritty, grimy almost out of focus presentation, something that was deliberately done by Solondz to give it (I assume) a "realistic" quality. Instead, it makes the film look pretty much like what it is: a poorly written and filmed student project. The video transfer may not look like much, but I won't put the blame on New Line for this one. The audio is likewise flat despite being a 5.1 channel surround presentation. The only "special feature" is the ability to see the unrated version of the film, which, for the record, is the version I watched for this review. If seamless branching was used to present the unrated version (and I'm not sure if this is indeed the case), then it was mastered flawlessly with no delays between the cuts.
There's a really easy way to determine if Storytelling is the right movie for you. If you think the premise of a filmmaker blatantly ripping off American Beauty and having another character tell him that ripping off American Beauty is kind of a dumb thing to do is a clever idea, then this movie is for you. If you think the above idea is pretentious and dull, you should probably avoid Storytelling. If Clint Eastwood can divide the world into those with loaded guns and those who dig, than I can divide the audience of what will obviously be a very polarizing film. It's one of those you'll either really love or really hate, and you can pretty well guess where I fell on the spectrum.
I'd normally say that Storytelling is guilty, but that would be too much of a cliché.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
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