Usually a talented young writer-director is affected by the baleful sophomore jinx: after a superlative debut, his second feature turns out to be a disappointment. Todd Solondz defied the odds, creating in the complex, dark and disturbing “Happiness” (1998) a work that was even more richly textured and quietly compelling than his first major film, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” (l996), which was itself excellent. (Solondz had actually made two other pictures in the decade before 1996, but they were juvenilia, and are very little seen.) It now appears, however, that he hasn’t escaped the jinx but merely delayed it. His new picture, despite some startling moments and incisive observations, seems a trifle beside “Dollhouse” and “Happiness”; its targets are more obvious and its treatment of them less acute. If it came from someone else–especially a first-timer–“Storytelling” would be described as promising, but from a fellow who’s already produced two masterful pictures it’s a distinct letdown.
“Storytelling” is a bipartite film, its two separate stories linked by a common theme–the character of “truth” in narration, and the tendency of turning something into a tale to involve some sort of exploitation. The first segment, the shorter (at barely a half-hour) and the better, is set on a college campus where a Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, an angry African-American (Robert Wisdom), berates his creative writing students. One whom he verbally abuses is Marcus (Lei Fitzpatrick), a cerebral palsy victim. The failure of his classmate and girlfriend Vi (Selma Blair) to come to his defense causes Marcus to break things off with her, and when she encounters Scott in a campus hangout, she accompanies him back to his apartment and has sex with him. Later she writes a story about the episode and reads it to the class; but it’s criticized by her fellow-students as unrealistic and whiny.
“Fiction,” as this first segment is called, has a lot going for it. It cleverly lampoons all sorts of PC conventions about race, sex and physical disability, and contains periodic nuggets of acidic academic wit (most offered by a sharp-tongued student named Catherine–played by Aleksa Palladino–whom Scott has previously bedded). In addition, the sexual material cannily upsets voyeuristic expectations (particularly when Solondz employs a technique that’s a deliberate exaggeration of the device Kubrick was forced to employ by the MPAA in the “Eyes Wide Shut” orgy scene). And though ultimately the piece seems like little more than a nasty short story, it still packs a wallop–despite acting which is at best workmanlike (and, in the case of Fitzpatrick, less than that).
The second part of the picture, titled “Non-fiction,” is longer but more obvious, meandering and flat. It concerns a pathetically unsuccessful, would-be documentary filmmaker, Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti)–his denseness is suggested by the surname–who aims to delve into contemporary high school life in suburbia by training his lens on a wayward senior called Scooby (Mark Webber) and his tension-filled family. There’s overbearing dad Marty (John Goodman) and dim-bulb mom Fern (Julie Hagerty) and two younger brothers, gregarious Brady (Noah Fleiss) and precocious Mikey (Jonathan Osser); a haggard Salvadoran maid, Consuleo (Lupe Ontiveros) may also be considered a family member, though a downtrodden one. Much of the plot revolves around Marty’s insistence that the uninterested Scooby apply to college, but there are also elements related to Toby’s haplessness, sibling rivalry within the Livingston clan, family tragedy, and even the mistreatment of the household help.
This segment of the picture has some sharp moments. There’s a hilarious offhanded remark about Derrida, for instance, and the title that Toby gives to his effort–“American Scooby”–is an amusing allusion to Chris Smith’s 1999 documentary “American Movie” (a point emphasized by the presence of Mike Schank, the gonzo buddy from “Movie,” as Toby’s cameraman here). But for the most part “Non-Fiction” disappoints. It isn’t so much that the notion of satirizing documentary filmmaking–especially its proclivity to exploitation–is old-hat (indeed, Solondz avoids emphasizing that aspect of the piece); it’s that the writer-director’s treatment seems unfocused, jumping from character to character and short-changing some of them in the process. Toby is a pretty obvious creation, and while Scooby gives hints of being more complicated than he first seems (though a moment in which a fellow student approaches him for casual sex comes across as forced, and is never followed up), he’s never truly fleshed out. Goodman and Hagerty give one-note performances in one-note roles, and Osser’s Mikey is exaggeratedly creepy. (He seems like something out of a dark sitcom.) In fact, the best acting comes from Fleiss, in the most dramatically promising role; but the promise isn’t realized. And the denouement comes across as little more than a calculated exercise in bleak humor.
Ultimately one can’t help but have mixed feelings about so problematical a picture as “Storytelling.” There are good things in it, but not quite enough to overcome its flaws. In this case, Todd Solondz’s mixture of cynicism and smugness doesn’t go deep enough or seem truthful enough to matter much.