USA 2001
director, script : Todd Solondz
producers include : Christine Vachon
cinematography : Frederick Elmes
editing : Alan Oxman
music : Belle & Sebastian, Nathan Larson
lead actors : Selma Blair, Paul Giamatti, Mark Webber, Robert Wisdom
83 minutes

Storytelling works just fine as a challenging, provocative comedy, but viewers in search of challenging, provocative ideas should look elsewhere. Don’t worry about making sense of director-writer Solondz’s underlying themes – his movie can be enjoyed as one of the year’s most bracingly funny releases. More accurately, ‘his movies,’ since Storytelling comprises two distinct parts.

‘Fiction’ is a self-contained skit about a US college creative-writing group. Admirably economical, the segment has only four proper characters – Blair as nave student Vi, Leo Fitzpatrick as her cerebral-palsy sufferer boyfriend Marcus, Wisdom as imposing black tutor Mr Scott and Aleksa Palladino as Catherine, a student rumoured to be sleeping with Scott – but nimbly manipulates them to push various hot buttons of race, disability, and sexuality. It doesn’t add up to a great deal, but neither does it ever put a foot wrong – it’s a miniature, with every detail falling into just the right place, and the way Solondz deploys Catherine is a spot-on perfect.

‘Nonfiction,’ is significantly longer, with a wider scope. We follow an untalented but well-meaning indie documentarist (Giamatti) whose quest to find a typical American teenager leads him to the borderline-catatonic Scooby (Webber), product of a wildly dysfunctional middle-class family. ‘Nonfiction’ isn’t so satisfying as the first section, and it goes off the rails as events spiral towards an implausibly apocalyptic climax. It’s as if Solondz couldn’t really develop his gag material, and, as in his last picture Happiness, lurched towards more desperately over-the-top forms of satire.

But there’s plenty to appreciate along the way, including Scooby’s hilariously monstrous brat of a brother (Jonathan Osser as Mikey), and a couple of unexpected movie in-jokes: Mike Schank from American Movie pops up as Giamatti’s cameraman, and there’s a sequence in his footage that mocks American Beauty‘s now-legendary plastic-bag-in-the-wind. For Solondz to combine these references and actually call Giamatti’s film ‘American Scooby’ is a step too far, however, as are the shots of the lad’s tearful reactions when he stumbles across a screening and is horrified by the audience’s hysterical laughter. This is the point where Solondz starts losing his grip.

It’s easy to pick holes in Storytelling. The broken-backed structure working against the movie, as you end up distracted, trying to work out how one section informs the other, especially given the fact that so many of the characters are fond of critiquing various forms of narrative, from Wisdom’s acidic tutor to Franka Potente’s editor, unimpressed by Giamatti’s rushes. Solondz’s argument, if he has one, seems to be that both fiction and non-fiction can be used by untalented people for their own self-delusional purposes. Or something.

The characters are all in some way pathetic, or laughable, or (at best) misguided – he doesn’t like any of them, and nor does he expect us to, either. These are banal, easy targets, but it’s amusing to watch them being savaged – unlike the hapless dupes of Lukas Moodysson’s Together – because here, at least, there’s no pretense of humanism, and, crucially, the jokes are actually funny ones. Solondz isn’t any kind of visual stylist, and the only weapon at his disposal is this jagged, awkward humour, which isn’t really all that penetrating or intelligent. But when he’s on form, as he is for most of Storytelling, it’s more than enough.

20th August, 2001
(seen Aug-16-01, Cameo Edinburgh – Film Festival)
by Neil Young
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