It’s the cinema of contempt, and it really sucks. Most of us learned in elementary school that people who spend their time making fun of other people usually carry gargantuan doubts about their own self-worth. It’s been the topic of many bad novels and heart-warming sitcom episodes, and even a few good films. Last year’s Ghost World neatly deconstructed this circumstance while still telling an entertaining story about discovery. In short, it’s been covered.
Then there’s Todd Solondz, a skilled writer and director who simply cannot stand the idea that other people might not fear and worship his towering talents. The bespectacled mind behind the fun-for-the-whole-family misanthropic nightmares Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness has made a career out of telling us that everybody he knew while growing up in the New Jersey suburbs was a dysfunctional, mean, disgusting, borderline-mentally-ill freak who didn’t appreciate him for the delicate flower that he was. And since he did it with a modicum of literacy and cleverness, we’ve all ignored the fact that he’s a big jerk who hates everybody.
His third film, Storytelling, is a marginal step forward in this series of invitations to laugh and point from behind the safety of the silver curtain. It’s not a step forward thematically-he’s still making fun of people. Only this time, he’s expanded his scope of abuse beyond the suburbs to include critics, studio executives, people who hate his films and even those who like them.
To do so, he’s made a tired, irrelevant film consisting of two completely asynchronous halves, labeled “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction.” There are coherent themes about betrayal, abuses of power and misdirected criticism of art here, but it’s nothing we didn’t already know, and nothing that hasn’t been captured in much more compelling movies. It really exists primarily so that Solondz can insist that his sarcastic, mean-spirited take on life is still relevant. At times, it’s simply too desperate to watch.
The shorter, first part of the film is the story of Vi (Selma Blair) and Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), two college writing students who are doing it. Their professor (Robert Wisdom) then rips on one of Marcus’ stories, leading to the couple’s breakup. Afterward, Vi and the professor hook up in a bar, from which they go home to have graphic sex (which Solondz has covered with a red splotch to avoid MPAA trouble in one of the few clever intellectual ideas he shows). Back in class, the professor praises Vi for her fictional interpretation of the night, while her classmates (that’s us, kids) criticize her for her sensationalism.
The second section features Toby (Paul Giamatti, looking a bit like Solondz himself), a going-nowhere filmmaker who decides to make a documentary about Scooby (Mark Webber), a suburban slacker. Toby turns the film into a snickering satire of Scooby’s loud family, which brings peals of mocking laughter from the sophisticated New York audiences (that’s us again, kids) who watch it.
Most people with a serious interest in film would agree that Solondz has storytelling skills that are worth nurturing. It’s true, if only on the strength of the best parts of Happiness, where he briefly, fleetingly showed interest in something more substantial than himself. But developing a coherent, compelling narrative voice is a time-consuming process, and most of us don’t have the desire to digest terribly incomplete, childish first drafts of films like Storytelling.
Somebody should tell Solondz to quit it, but he’d just shout them down. He probably won’t learn his lesson until he gets the much-needed antidote to the shenanigans of any intellectual bully: an acidic review in a regional weekly newspaper, followed by a savage beating with a metal pipe.
Anybody got a pipe?