Life sucks 

Storytelling skewers suburbia and political correctness

Cinematic amoralist Todd Solondz treats modern society like a car accident he's all too happy to gawk at in his new film Storytelling. Like Neil LaBute, his poker-faced cohort in the contemporary "Life's a Bitch ... And Then You Die" genre, Solondz is sickened by various au courant annoyances like political correctness and suburbia, as well as more timeless issues of "truth" and "fiction."

Storytelling is composed of two separate stories in a film divided into two parts. The first yarn, "Fiction," is about a naive college student, Vi (Selma Blair), who uses sex to work out feelings of social guilt. Vi is a pink-haired punk enrolled in a writing class that becomes an exercise in sadistic and masochistic political correctness. Already involved with Marcus, a student with cerebral palsy whom she seems to use as a PC pity fuck, Vi is also perversely attracted to the viciously detached black professor Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), who cuts his white students' prose to ribbons and sexually dominates his acquiescent female students in some kind of racist payback that plays upon their liberal guilt.

Should anyone question the motives of presenting such an ugly, abject story of sexual exploitation, Solondz cuts off opposition before it even starts. He uses a classroom of lemming-like, clueless students in Scott's writing class to spout condemning, moralistic pronouncements whenever unpleasant "fiction" is read. Solondz instructs us about whom we should most definitely not identify with if we want to joust on his elevated, irreverent playing field. But Solondz's most glaring effort to court a sophisticated amorality backfires. When he shows a violent act of intercourse between Vi and Scott, he imposes an enormous orange grid to block out the action that would otherwise have garnered the film the dreaded NC-17 rating. Rather than provoking outrage that our vision is blocked by censors, it illustrates how unnecessary actually seeing the sex is to our understanding of the story, and yet, how consistently Solondz relies upon shock value rather than carefully crafted cinema.

The second, far better half of Storytelling suggests that "truth" can be just as calculated as fiction. Self-serving thirtysomething loser Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) has failed at acting and law, so he turns his attention to documentary filmmaking with contemporary teens as his subject. Toby's muse is Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), a petulant, underachieving suburban wasteoid, first seen smoking pot in the boys' bathroom.

"Non-fiction" initially seems like Solondz's reversion to the familiar Happiness setting of the idiot-thick ranks of suburbia. Scooby (brilliantly evoked by Webber) is a familiar space-case teen in a family of comparable doofuses. Overbearing daddy (John Goodman) is a tubby businessman who bellows commands at his three children while Julie Hagerty, as his wife, offers up that actress' familiar bunny-caught-in-the-headlights confusion. Refusing to deviate from a well-worn course, Solondz offers the same insight of every MTV badass out there, that the suburbs are the pisspot at the end of depravity's rainbow.

Storytelling is better than Solondz's previous relentlessly cruel films, if only because he gives us characters who reveal soft sides beneath the hateful veneer Solondz first saddles them with. The absurdly political Vi turns out to be a duped victim of white guilt who is manipulated by a more experienced teacher. And when Toby finally screens his documentary for an audience of howling Manhattanites, even brain-dead Scooby becomes likeable.

Solondz is, fortunately, not above indicting himself in the process as a Tobyesque manipulator using art to validate himself. In Storytelling Solondz suggests that artistry -- in Toby's hands -- is less vision than accident. And if Solondz himself occasionally stumbles onto some actual moments of tenderness or vision in his film, his audience can finally be rewarded for their patience.

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