Storytelling (2001)
New Line Home Entertainment
Cast: Selma Blair, John Goodman, Paul Giamatti
Extras: Trailer

A Todd Solondz film is not a happy film. Sure, one of his previous efforts was entitled "Happiness" but anyone who’s seen the movie can attest to the fact that happy it isn’t. No, a Todd Solondz film is typically a decidedly uncomfortable affair delving into the bleaker aspects of the human soul — the very issues that most folks heading out to the local cineplex are striving to forget about for a few hours and not have shoved in their faces. "Happiness," "Welcome to the Dollhouse," and now "Storytelling" are all thought-provoking, cringe-inducing films that are at times very difficult to watch. The issues touched upon are not feel-good topics but they most certainly are a part of our screwed up society.

It may sound like I don’t care for these movies. While that may to some extent be true I find much solace in the fact that an American writer and director is making films of this nature within the typically constrained and milque-toast confines of the studio system. I can’t imagine what Solondz brings into a meeting with studio executives to get such films greenlit in the first place but more power to him.

As a general rule, these films all look at dire events through the eyes of people who would otherwise be considered normal. These are your friends and neighbors and not some stereotypical wild-eyed and drugged-out pervert on the loose. What makes these movies all the more disturbing is how much the viewer can relate to those who act in often patently wrong ways. Laughter elicited while watching these films is most uncomfortable yet at the same time quite revealing.

In the two-part "Storytelling" such warm and fuzzy topics as physical handicaps, racism, exploitation, and dysfunctional families are explored and mined for the type of laughs that make you feel bad about yourself.

Part one is entitled "Fiction." Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) is an aspiring writer who also happens to suffer from cerebral palsy. He and his girlfriend Vi (Selma Blair) enroll in a writing class and soon begin fighting over the perceived quality of Marcus’ prose. After one such spat, Vi leaves and runs into their professor (Robert Wisdom) at a local bar. Before long the two retreat to the prof’s lair where he subjects Vi to some very humiliating and graphic (in the unrated version) sex.

Later, Vi writes about the experience and presents it as a fictional work to the class where it is roundly criticized for being stereotypical and unbelievable trash. Vi’s own fears about offending people — her disabled boyfriend, her black professor — is what got her into trouble in the first place and this same lock-step, politically correct attitude is shared by the rest of the class leading them to discount as fiction any story that would make such blatantly offensive remarks — no matter how true.

The second part of the film is entitled "Nonfiction." Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) is a wannabe documentary filmmaker who hooks up with the decidedly dysfunctional Livingstons to document a day in the life of the American family. The fact that he once had a high school crush on Mrs. Livingston is the primary driving force behind his "project." The film revolves around the confused teenaged son Scooby (Mark Webber) who seems to have no direction in his life. Rounding out the cast are raging dad Marty (John Goodman), clueless mom Fern (Julie Hagerty), alpha-son Brady (Noah Fleiss), precocious younger son Mikey (Jonathan Osser), and Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros), the live-in housekeeper.

A skewering look at the way critics, audiences, and filmmakers are more than happy to share a laugh at the expense of anyone other than themselves, "Nonfiction" takes things to extremes with a horrific accident, frank rationalization for the Holocaust, and even a foray into capital punishment. This film is clearly semi-autobiographical in tone as Toby is taken to task for many of the same things that Todd Solondz has been criticized for over the years. I’m not sure that this extended f-you to his critics is really all that effective but the movie is at times quite entertaining.

"Storytelling" is offered on DVD in both R-rated and unrated versions and in both <$PS,widescreen> and <$PS,full frame> formats for both. Choosing the R-rated version places a big, red box over the one explicit sex scene. The director did this flipping-the-bird salute to the MPAA rather than face the dreaded NC-17 rating. It’s a pretty amusing solution and the MPAA seems to have completely missed the blatant sarcasm. That’s it for differences between the two versions.

The quality of the 1.85:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> version is fairly decent. The overall image is just a tad soft but not too distracting. Colors are solid and lifelike but black levels do suffer in the many darker scenes. There are no blemishes or defects on the print and edge enhancement is kept to a minimum. While the transfer certainly won’t win any awards it does offer a nice enough presentation of the film.

Audio comes in English <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 and 2.0 mixes. This is a dialogue-driven film with only the occasional musical cue taking advantage of the full front soundstage. There is no deep bass and no discernible surround usage in either mix but the tracks are free from distortion and sound just fine.

The only extra on the disc is the film’s theatrical trailer.

Taken as a whole "Storytelling" is an attention-grabbing film that will likely elicit strong reactions from the audience. Those unable to look beyond the obvious shock value will likely be less than enthusiastic. But the open-eyed and painfully innocent way in which Solondz examines these bleak issues is at times entertaining and thought-provoking. It’s as if someone from Mars had landed in middle America with a camera and started shooting a movie with no preconceived notions about right and wrong. The characters may have their own sometimes twisted ways of seeing the world but the film itself is pointedly neutral. What happens on-screen is presented as is whereas other movies would be rife with heavy-handed messages and spoon-fed to an audience pre-conditioned to respond in all the "right" ways.

My biggest concern is that all this talk of being unbiased is but one step removed from refusing to accept responsibility. The characters are certainly a screwed up lot but Todd Solondz seems to be beseeching the audience not to laugh at them while at the same time setting them up to fail. Just as the characters manipulate one another so too does the director manipulate the audience. It’s almost as though the viewer is being penalized for actually liking the movie. An odd way to make a movie to say the least.

New Line’s DVD release offers up a fine presentation of the film although a few insightful extras would have been greatly appreciated. "Storytelling" is recommended viewing for those who like to be challenged by the movies they watch but those with a squeamish or Puritanical streak should probably take a pass on this one.