Storytelling

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Storytelling

The latest salvo in Todd Solondz's generously financed revenge on the world, Storytelling continues in the anti-humanist vein of Welcome To The Dollhouse and Happiness, peeling away a few more layers of ugliness to reveal how rotten people are at the core. Intended as a poison-pen letter to his detractors, the film dispenses the director's usual bile in the form of a disingenuous autocritique, launching a preemptive strike against his critics while pretending to implicate himself in the process. The sneaky logic behind Storytelling is that if he's the first person to call his work glib, facile, condescending, and hateful, he can spare others the bother. But like a meaner cousin to Kevin Smith's Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, Solondz's self-indulgent meta-movie unpacks an empty suitcase, showing clear signs of creative exhaustion only a few films into his career. Divided into two lopsided sections, "Fiction" and the longer "Non-Fiction," Storytelling looks at the destructive consequences when real life is processed into a narrative. A powder keg of interracial politics, "Fiction" centers on a creative-writing course taught by Robert Wisdom, the callous black author of a Pulitzer-winning book titled A Sunday Lynching. Selma Blair plays a student who loses interest in her cerebral palsy-stricken boyfriend (Leo Fitzpatrick) and throws herself into a one-night stand with Wisdom, whose abuses are not limited to the classroom. Their excruciating sex scene courts controversy for its racist stereotypes, but Solondz begs out the discussion by keeping it safely confined to "fiction," and therefore not his (or anybody else's) responsibility. In the end, "Fiction" is really about Solondz thumbing his nose at his critics, but it's still more concise and fully realized than "Non-Fiction," an appalling free-for-all on conformity, upper-class values, and the exploitative nature of documentary filmmaking. Donning a pair of Solondz's Coke-bottle glasses, Paul Giamatti stars as his sniveling alter-ego, a Florsheim Shoes salesman with ambitions to revisit his traumatic high-school years by making a documentary about contemporary youth. For his subject, he settles on Mark Webber, a disaffected senior who has vague dreams about being a talk-show host, but lacks the will to do much of anything, much less go to college like his grotesque parents (John Goodman and Julie Hagerty) demand. Solondz throws in a flimsy subplot about Webber's awful younger brother and his oblivious arrogance around the maid (Lupe Ontiveros), but it's hard to fathom what it might have to do with the rest of the film. The real theme of "Non-Fiction" is how filmmakers in general, and documentarians in particular, can lay waste to people's lives for their own benefit and the pleasure of their smugly superior audiences. In a thinly veiled attack, Solondz pegs Chris Smith's American Movie as a primary offender for turning the real-life travails of aspiring Milwaukee filmmaker Mark Borchardt into easy comic sport. But Solondz's myopic point-of-view prevents him from seeing the warmth and camaraderie that tugs underneath the laughs, or the mix of inspiration and foolishness that complicates Borchardt's dreams. It would be tempting to call Storytelling a narrow and simplistic examination of the creative process, if only Solondz weren't so quick to agree.