Todd Solondz's "Storytelling" is designed to foster a sensation of absorbing discomfort, not unlike his earlier examinations of esoteric, emotionally disquieting Americana "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness." But this film's two shrewd but pointless short stories are suppressed by the underlying feeling that the film got worked over something fierce in post-production, and that half its guts are lying on a cutting room floor somewhere.
The conspicuously abrupt first segment, entitled "Fiction," runs about 20 minutes and stars Selma Blair ("Legally Blonde") and Leo Fitzpatrick ("Bully") in painfully authentic performances as an emotionally insecure coed and her cerebral palsy-stricken dorm neighbor and lover. Unable to connect emotionally, they each vent their frustrations in pallid short stories about their thinly veiled real lives for a creative writing class. These yarns are not well received by their ruthlessly candid classmates, who pass judgment on Blair's and Fitzpatrick's meager authoring talents and, by extension, their messed-up lives.
Desperately seeking some kind of acceptance, the frail, troubled Blair surrenders herself sexually to her even more cruel professor (Robert Wisdom). Once at his apartment, he forces her to spout racial epithets (she's white, he's black and about three times her size) while having his way with her rather violently and so graphically that Solondz covered the scene with a superimposed red box to avoid an NC-17.
Although hard to digest, 20 minutes feels like a gyp for this segment, which makes a tremendous investment in its characters and touches on such resonant themes (self-esteem, ego, shame, discrimination, intimidation) it could have run 60 minutes without running out of steam.
"Fiction" feels as if it's been expurgated while leaving most of its points unresolved because Solondz is anxious to move on to "Nonfiction," a suburban misery fable without much new to say on the topic.
This short, anecdotal and ironic comedy stars Paul Giamatti (also starring in this week's "Big Fat Liar") as a lonely, socially inept, Solondz-surrogate nerd, not unlike Philip Seymour Hoffman in "Happiness." He's a failed documentary filmmaker who is taking one last stab at his career by following the life of a "typical" sullen, disaffected teenager named Snoopy (Mark Webber) and his uptight, end-of-their-rope, minivan-driving mom and dad (Julie Hagerty and John Goodman).
Troubled by the fact that he knows he's dim and truly rudderless (but not troubled enough to try to affect any change), Snoopy's greatest ambition in life is "I wanna be on TV or something." Least favored among his siblings, Snoopy mopes around his room and takes verbal abuse from his father about avoiding the SATs. Meanwhile, his star athlete older brother is knocked into a coma during a football game -- an event his brainiac little brother sees an opportunity to move up a notch on his parents' totem pole.
Themes of sibling rivalry, parental partiality and disapproval, cultural voyeurism and middle class cultural isolationism pervade "Nonfiction" -- and both narratives in "Storytelling" are peppered with acrid dark humor that takes a bite out of their distressing atmosphere.
But for all its raw, ego-battered emotionality and social perception, "Storytelling" seems as aimless and untapped as Snoopy. It's as if Solondz had more to say but changed his mind about saying any of it with these stories -- which may not be far from the truth. A third episode was filmed for this anthology, but it was dropped completely for reasons unknown.
Run time: 87 mins
In Theaters: Thursday 8th November 2001
Box Office USA: $0.9M
Distributed by: Fine Line Features
Production compaines: New Line Cinema, Killer Films, Good Machine
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 53%
Fresh: 47 Rotten: 42
IMDB: 6.9 / 10
Director: Todd Solondz
Starring: Selma Blair as Vi, Leo Fitzpatrick as Marcus, Robert Wisdom as Mr. Scott, Maria Thayer as Ami, Angela Goethals as Elli, Devorah Rose as Lucy, Nancy Anne Ridder as Joyce, Steve Rosen as Ethan, Aleksa Palladino as Catherine, Mary Lynn Rajskub as Melinda, Tina Holmes as Sue, Paul Giamatti as Toby Oxman, Mike Schank as Mike the Cameraman, Xander Berkeley as Mr. DeMarco, Mark Webber as Scooby Livingston