on January 25, 2002 by Lael Loewenstein
No one can skewer suburbia quite like writer/director Todd Solondz. In his last two features, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness," Solondz demonstrated an unparalleled flair for peeling the seemingly placid exterior off of American families and revealing the dysfunction, at once laceratingly funny and deeply tragic, that lies beneath. Rife with his characteristic black humor, "Storytelling" is just as disturbing as his previous outings, but it's a less cohesive and finally less satisfying piece.

   Part of the trouble with "Storytelling" is its lopsided structure. Divided unevenly into two unrelated sections, "Fiction" and "Non-Fiction," the film suffers by front-loading its strongest material first. The second, comparatively weaker portion is much longer, rendering the final product unwieldy.

   Set on a university campus, "Fiction" concerns college student Vi (Selma Blair), who wants desperately to impress her emotionally aloof, fiercely intimidating professor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom). Over the objections of her cerebral palsy-afflicted boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), Vi tries to curry favor with Scott, a Pulitzer prize-winning African-American writer, resulting in a consensual sexual encounter that leaves Vi feeling psychologically violated. The Vi-Scott sex scene is filmed with such brutal, unrelenting directness that it's akin to watching a fatal traffic accident: It's horrifying yet at the same time fascinating; it's impossible not to look and all but impossible to erase from the memory. It also poses some problems for the film's rating. Solondz has vowed not to excise the controversial scene but plans instead to cover up a portion of the frame with a box, not unlike the technique used in the infamous orgy in "Eyes Wide Shut."

   "Non-Fiction" touches on some of the same issues as "Fiction," including racial prejudice, political correctness and social stereotypes, but--with the exception of a few scenes--the second section is much less effective. It centers on Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), an aspiring documentary filmmaker shooting a film on today's disaffected teens. Toby's focus is the delinquent suburban youth Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), a constant source of disappointment to his nouveau-riche, Jewish parents (John Goodman and Julie Hagerty). Various tensions simmer in the Livingston household, both between parents and children and between the underappreciated Salvadoran maid (Lupe Ontiveros) and her employers.

   "Storytelling" presents a host of interesting characters and intriguing elements to mine, but Solondz doesn't exploit the material to its potential, leaving the impression that in the end he just runs out of steam. Starring Selma Blair, Paul Giamatti, John Goodman and Julie Hagerty. Directed and written by Todd Solondz. Produced by Ted Hope and Christine Vachon. A Fine Line release. Black comedy. Not yet rated. Running time: 88 min

Tags: Starring Selma Blair, Paul Giamatti, John Goodman and Julie Hagerty. Directed and written by Todd Solondz, Produced by Ted Hope, Christine Vachon, Fine Line, Black comedy

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