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[whitespace] 'Storytelling'
Family Affair: John Goodman and Julie Hagerty get parental.

Gripes of Wrath

Todd Solondz goes after the bourgeoisie in 'Storytelling'

By Richard von Busack

First and foremost, director Todd Solondz is a very funny guy; that is, if one can get past the provocation of his material. The director of Storytelling, whose last film was the unwatchable Happiness, plays with dynamite that would have blown the face off many an erstwhile shock comedian. But is he more than just a bilious humorist?

Storytelling is a two-part film. In the first section, "Fiction," set in the middle of the Reagan years, a callow punk-rock girl named Vi (Selma Vlair) is used, first privately and then publicly, by her creative-writing teacher (Robert Wisdom).

The teacher, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a story called "A Sunday Lynching," is black. He grudge-fucks his silly white students, which has led some sensitive critics to describe what happens to Vi as rape. Certainly it's sex on the edge of being out of bounds, and it's hard for the referee to call. Since Solondz had to have an R rating to sell his film, he mutilated this scene by overlaying a huge, red "Censored" box to confound the prim stupidity of the MPAA. The disgusting scene, even covered over, has a hideo-comic payoff: It feeds into the second half of the film, titled "Non-Fiction," the much more overtly comic section.

"Non-Fiction" plays as a parody on the nouveau documentary--an inside joke. Paul Giamatti plays Toby Oxman, an aspiring filmmaker currently working in a shoe store.

This ox has all the wrong instincts as a filmmaker. His tongue is clotted with sociological clichés, and he possesses an easily distracted mind. Fortunately, nobody notices: neither his subject--an inert suburban kid named Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber)--nor his subject's grotesquely venal family.

The axe Solondz is grinding here was polished to surgical sharpness by Albert Brooks in his 1979 film Real Life. But Solondz prefers to accuse the suburban dopes as much as the sleazy idiot with the minicam: It's easy (and just) to say that Solondz himself has shamed and distorted his characters, just as Oxman does.

As the mom, Julie Hagerty, a fine comic, is treated like a cluck for caring about her children. John Goodman, on the other hand, is more real in his truculent househusband role than anyone else in this film (Storytelling is as full of straw men as a cornfield). Goodman brings hints of compassion to the role; he's too big to flatten. Since we routinely congratulate directors for pushing actors beyond their limits, can't we also congratulate actors for instinctively refusing to cross certain lines, for having better sense than their directors?

Again, "Non-Fiction" is often funny, especially in its moments of vindictive political comedy about the little princeling of the Livingston family, Mikey (Jonathan Osser), hounding the Salvadoran maid (Lupe Ontiveros). Still, these scenes never pay off, except in the usual crotchets to which Solondz always returns: the cruelty and lack of feeling of the middle class. At some point, a filmmaker has to realize that the bourgeoisie, like the poor, will be with us always.

Solondz has the natural inclination of a humorist, to mock and jibe--and there are worse qualities. But Solondz needs to see his figures of authority, like the bullying teacher and the mourning maid, as worthy of mockery too. He needs to be as ruthless with his own big ideas as he is with the characters he creates.


'Storytelling' opens Friday, March 8, at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. For details, see Movie Times, or call 415.454.1222.

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From the March 7-13, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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