If they teach the work of Todd Solondz someday, assuming he's not already in the curriculum somewhere, the lectures are bound to be rather short. To grasp the material without actually attending, just bone up on a little bargain-basement Freud, a whiff of primal therapy and a sprinkle of Jerry Springer. To comprehend the filmmaker's full range of themes, merely picture a sledgehammer with the word neuroses written on it swinging toward your skull. The quizzes will be a breeze, and if you're called upon to speak, simply say, "There is unfairness in the world." You'll pass.
Were it not for his innate understanding of suburban agony, which totally eclipses such obvious fare as American Beauty, Solondz would be swiftly dismissed, but the Newark, New Jersey, native knows how to claim his swatch of territory and render it engrossing, often with the emphasis on gross. His knack for concocting disturbing characters smacks of Stephen King back when the horror meister was worth reading, yet Solondz doesn't require the supernatural to drench us with nastiness. Like Neil LaBute (Your Friends & Neighbors) and Larry Clark (Kids), the writer-director is desperate to point out that something is very wrong here in the real world. Fortunately, he also appraises his suburban condition with jaw-dropping edginess and an uncanny ability to wrench stunning performances from his casts.
Storytelling is sort of Solondz's third feature (if one mercifully omits his 1989 debut, Fear, Anxiety & Depression), and in many ways it is his strongest effort to date. As with 1996's Welcome to the Dollhouse (actual working title: Faggots and Retards), he proves himself an expert in the mode of John Hughes gone to hell, and after the projection of adolescent angst that dumbed down the adults of the otherwise impressive Happiness, he seems comfortable here focusing mostly from the point of view of freaked-out kids. (He's also amplified the hipster factor with the music of Belle and Sebastian, plus the presence of Franka Potente, Conan O'Brien and Mike Schank of American Movie.) There's nothing terribly new or surprising on tap -- Ghost World already covered this miasma of moping, and the documentary Chain Camera provides a strong taste of the real thing -- but Solondz is a master of backing you into a queasy corner and tickling you until you puke, a dubious but noteworthy talent.
To achieve his goal this time, Solondz breaks Storytelling into two chapters: "Fiction" and "Non-Fiction." (A third was reportedly excised -- "Autobiography," perhaps? -- lending the film its zippy 83-minute length.) The first segment is a period piece set in a third-rate community college in 1985, where a Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American novelist named Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom) holds court over a class of wildly opinionated creative-writing students. The crux is that the punky blond Vi (Selma Blair) has grown weary of the drab sex and painfully mawkish prose of her cerebral-palsied boyfriend, Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), and so approaches her brooding professor for an "exotic" tryst. Naturally for Solondz, incredible unpleasantness ensues (some of it ridiculously censored), and we're invited to flinch or guffaw as we please.
"Non-Fiction," if less successful overall, is much more ambitious, echoing the domestic madness of Dollhouse but channeling its confusion through the present-day torpor of a teenage dullard named Scooby (Mark Webber). After a rest-room encounter with a pathetic documentarian and shoe salesman named Toby (Paul Giamatti), Scooby -- whose only ambition is to become a famous talk-show host -- volunteers himself and his extremely unhappy family (John Goodman, Julie Hagerty, Noah Fleiss, Jonathan Osser) to be the subjects of Toby's meandering exposé on . . . something or other. Again, unpleasantness ensues, but not before we catch countless darkly satiric details, such as the Machiavellian youngest son, Mikey (Osser), grilling the Latina housekeeper, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros), with "innocent" questions such as, "Even though you're poor, don't you have any hobbies or interests?" Things get even uglier when Scooby informs his parents that, if it weren't for Hitler, they'd never have met each other in America and their children would never have been born. My Three Sons this is not.
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Solondz clearly wants to up the ante of his previous films, with the kidnapping of Dollhouse leading to the pederasty, rape and murder of Happiness to more rape and murder in Storytelling (plus there's a creepy scene of sexual submission best described as the worst commercial for iMacs ever conceived). What's finally clear, however, is that his characters -- the clichéd blonde, the moronic slacker, the pompous patriarch -- are all asking for it. Despite the slight irony of the "Fiction" and "Non-Fiction" titles, Solondz isn't working with irony at all. His singular game plan is to dangle profoundly obnoxious caricatures before us, then punish them mercilessly for their stupidity, which is amusing enough if you're in the mood for that sort of thing.