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Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2002

Socio-shock treatment


Rating: * * * * 1/2
Director: Todd Solondz
Running time: 87 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

How many taboos can you break in one film? At first glance, it might look like that's the question driving director Todd Solondz, the enfant terrible of American indie cinema. Certainly, that's how a lot of people viewed "Happiness," Solondz's caustic look at dysfunctional suburbanites, a film that made "American Beauty" look like "Father Knows Best."

News photo
John Goodman and Julie Hagerty in Todd Solondz's "Storytelling"

Solondz cooked up a volatile mix of pitch-black humor and characters who could charitably be called "disturbed": an obscene phone caller, a hip writer with rape fantasies and -- the straw that broke many a critic's back -- a psychiatrist who's a closet child-molester. "Shock for shock's sake" was the epitaph penned by many, and the film's distributor, Disney-subsidiary Miramax, dropped the film faster than an envelope leaking anthrax powder.

But there were other reactions as well; some laughed long and hard, grooving on Solondz's mastery of the outrageously uncomfortable moment. But beyond that, there was truth in the humor, the creepily accurate way in which all this obsession, self-absorption and dissatisfaction festered beneath a veneer of normality.

Solondz reads the papers, too, and knows that the sickest individuals -- say, a workplace spree-shooter -- are invariably described as "nice, quiet guys" by their neighbors . . . after they've made the headlines. Solondz finds his humor in the ease with which madness can live side by side with normalcy, and -- more importantly -- how mad so much of suburban "normalcy" is in the first place.

Some call Solondz a misanthrope, but coming from the New Jersey suburbs, this may well be a healthy reaction. Like Terry Zwigoff in "Ghost World," Solondz is venting on contemporary America, not from the political right or left, but just out of sheer disgust.

Why? Well, typical is a moment in Solondz's latest cinematic hand grenade, "Storytelling," when a high-school counselor is interviewed regarding the post-Colombine atmosphere in America's schools. She speaks in all seriousness, of tests that show "the stress of students in Bosnia who survived the bombing . . . is less stress than American students go through applying for college." Or take the 10-year-old son of a well-off white family, who reprimands the family's elderly Latina maid by saying, "Your job's not really so bad when you think about it. You should smile more." Then there's the college girl in a creative-writing class who condescendingly comments on a truly terrible short story by a classmate with cerebral palsy: "It kind of reminded me of an East Coast Faulkner . . . but disabled." Welcome to Ugly America.

"Storytelling" is, in many ways, a riposte to all the critics of "Happiness." Split into two separate stories titled "Fiction" and "Non-Fiction," Solondz is essentially saying that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't; that any mediated story is open to gross misinterpretation, particularly if it flies in the face of acceptable PC stereotypes. And, believe me, Solondz wastes no time in locking horns with a few of these.

"Fiction" opens with an orgasm: Liberal college student Vai (Selma Blair) -- the kind of girl who only wears T-shirts with lefty slogans -- is shagging her boyfriend, Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), the aforementioned bad writer with CP. I was going to say "lame writer," but stopped myself, and that's the point Solondz is picking at: To what extent do we allow ourselves to censor our own reactions to reality through a prism of how we wish things to be?

Solondz makes this dilemma clear in a scene in which Marcus shares his piss-poor work with his writing class. Even Vai knows its terrible, but -- like all the other students -- offers false praise. It's up to Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), a merciless professor with a Pulitzer Prize and no time for nonsense, to lower the boom; "This story is a piece of s***" is his blunt assessment, and he's right. Vai did Marcus no favors by being polite.

Vai's liberal sensitivities don't serve her well in dealing with Scott, either. As his above comment demonstrates, he's a callous guy, an "aggressively confrontational" black author who feels entitled to treat his white charges with contempt. This includes bedding as many impressionable young girls as he can. Vai ignores the evidence right before her eyes, however, wishing it away with "Don't be a racist." She ends up against a wall taking it from behind as Scott forces her to use the "N word." (This scene was censored in the United States.)

Solondz's purpose is not simply to rub our faces in the dirt, but to show us the futility of relying on pet beliefs and assumptions. The kicker comes when Vai reads a thinly fictionalized version of her sexual humiliation in class and is denounced by every student as "mean spirited," "racist" and "a spoiled suburban white girl with a Benetton complex." (Ouch!) Irony doesn't get much more wicked than this.

"Non-fiction" takes the opposite approach, with a sincere documentary filmmaker named Toby (Paul Giamatti, a Solondz stand-in) trying to make an insightful portrayal of a post-Colombine high-school student. The problem is, the teen he focuses on, Scooby (Mark Webber), and his family (with John Goodman as the boorish dad) are so hilariously dysfunctional that they become -- unintentionally -- the objects of ridicule.

Scooby is a hopelessly apathetic stoner, locked in his bedroom immersed in heavy metal, the kind of kid who'd bomb his school if he could be bothered. His dreams revolve around somehow becoming a late-night TV talk-show host and/or burning his parents at the stake. His siblings and parents are even worse, immersed in a mind-set where material gain is everything and empathy is for losers. "Life is tough on you? Well, boo-hoo!" rages Goodman, as he barbecues some steaks in his Bermuda shorts.

With "Storytelling," Solondz has fashioned a vicious little satire of contemporary American sensibilities. It's an equal-opportunity flamethrower, scorching both liberal hyper-sensitivity and conservative callousness. For my money, there's no more clear-sighted director working in the U.S.

"Hell is other people" is the mantra of misanthropy, but, let's face it, on some days -- like when you're dodging fluffy-haired scouts in Shibuya, or watching Donald Rumsfeld on the news -- it certainly feels true. When you hit one of those days, plop yourself in front of some Solondz and bask in its merciless ridicule.

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