Suburban Decay: A Very Sadistic Storytelling

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once called depression his most faithful mistress. Though I don't have any first-hand account of how Todd Solondz feels about mental despair, judging from his body of work, I would certainly presume that depression is both subject matter and muse for this auteur of cinematic anomie, gloom, and dysfunction. Following 1996's Sundance hit Welcome to the Dollhouse and the critical success of 1998's Happiness, Solondz has crafted his third tale, Storytelling, which premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival.

Storytelling, from the director's own screenplay, is ostensibly divided into two parts: the shorter "Fiction" and the longer "Non-Fiction" plot. The "Fiction" episode concerns Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), an African-American Pulitzer Prize-winning author who teaches creative writing to a group of distinctly untalented students at a second-rate institution of higher learning. Visibly frustrated by the mediocrity of his disciples' work, Mr. Scott uses every chance to trash and humiliate the work of his devoted pupils. For what they lack in talent, the ambitious writer-wannabes make up in sycophancy; they perpetually flatter their professor while swallowing his every insult.

In terms of consecration, no one goes further than Vi (Selma Blair), a punk rock T-shirt-wearing youngster. After an argument with her boyfriend, Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), who is also enrolled in Mr. Scott's class, Vi runs into her teacher in a local bar and seeks to seduce him. She soon discovers the S&M ambitions of her instructor, who forces her to have sexual intercourse while groaning a line that includes a racial epithet.

When Vi returns to the classroom with a purportedly fictional chronicle of the encounter, she finds herself accused both of lacking talent and of exploiting racial stereotypes. Her vociferous outcry--"It's all true"--equally falls on deaf ears. The curtain closes, and an intertitle announces the beginning of Act II, "Non-Fiction."

The second act tells the story of Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), who intends to be a major documentary filmmaker but so far hasn't managed to do anything but be a shoe salesman. Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), a gullible, utterly slothful high school senior, is to become the subject of Toby's breakout film project, a chronicle of life in suburbia.

Scooby lives with his parents, Marty (John Goodman) and Fern (Julie Hagger-ty), and his siblings, Brady (Noah Fleiss) and Mikey (Jon-athan Osser), in a calm and comfortable Jersey town. Brady and Mikey are the ultimate go-getters, while Scooby is the ultimate slacker. Brady is busy becoming a football star, and Mikey is busy learning, reading, and torturing the Liv-ingston's live-in maid, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros in a wonderfully understated and delightful performance).

Toby's documentary soon morphs into a derisive portrait of the all-too mundane suburbanites. While Toby and his cameraman play the dispassionate observers, the stoical, deadpan style of their recordings only heightens the sense of absurdity of the lives that the camera explores.

A beefy Marty, sitting in his trunks by the family pool, begins to blabber like a drunkard about the meaning of life. Scooby's only ambition is to become a late-night talk show host on national television. Yet all day, he sits around idly with a blank stare in his eyes, does literally nothing, and waits for things to happen for him.

Later, during a dinner conversation, Fern proclaims that the Livingston family should be considered survivors of the Holocaust, even though Fern's grandmother left Germany in the early 1930s, years before Hitler ever rose to power. At every intersection of the story, Toby, as Solondz's stand-in, is there to capture every word.

Fortunately, Solondz infuses the images with enough realism to prevent Storytelling from becoming a silly farce. The context is compelling enough that the viewer never doubts that people like the Livingstons exist out there in the real world. Just as one might have left Happiness worrying about the pedophiles hiding as compassionate family fathers in our midst, Storytelling creates a sense that suburbia is full of disillusioned and lethargic high school seniors and ranting dads.

Denigrating life at the outskirts of the big cities is the favorite theme for Solondz. Like a parrot, he keeps repeating the same message over and over again. At the same time, Solondz keeps upping the ante, touching on sensitive subjects from pedophilia to any other kind of sexual abuse. But you can shock people only so many times, and even a perpetual pseudo-shock therapy soon becomes tired and tiring. After enduring his first three films, I was not ready to ask, "What next?" Instead, I felt like yelling, "Enough already!"


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