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Solondz continues to dig under the sunny facade with 'Storytelling'

Friday, March 01, 2002

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Any movie that takes satirical potshots at "American Beauty," that phony-baloney rant about suburban dysfunction, gets points in my book. I'm intrigued even further when the movie is written and directed by Todd Solondz ("Happiness"), whose characters make the "American Beauty" crowd look like Ozzie and Harriet.


RATING: R for strong sexual content, language and some drug use.

STARRING: Selma Blair, Paul Giamatti, John Goodman, Julie Hagerty.

DIRECTOR: Todd Solondz.



Solondz's "Storytelling," now at the Destinta Bridgeville and Squirrel Hill theaters, also takes shots at him, or at least responds to how people reacted to his earlier films. "Storytelling" offers two separate vignettes linked by the notion that there can be no absolute truth in art -- that the very act of filming something (even in documentary form) or of writing it down separates it from reality.

The prologue, "Fiction," pivots on a college writing class taken by Vi (Selma Blair) and her lover Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), who has cerebral palsy. He writes about a character much like himself who gets politically correct smatterings of praise from classmates until the instructor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, tears apart Leo's work in class.

Scott is black, and his presence and artistic stature cow the students. He also triggers Vi's interest, leading to one of Solondz's typically provocative scenes -- so much so that, to keep an R rating, he had to cover some of it up with a big red box, which looks as ridiculous (and that's his point) as the demands of the ratings board censors and their claims of non-interference with filmmakers.

Truth suffers another blow in the classroom scene that ends this part of the movie. Everyone's a critic, it seems, and nobody gets the point. One suspects Solondz knows the feeling.

The main part of the movie, subtitled "Nonfiction," begins with Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), a somewhat pathetic would-be-actor-turned-shoe-salesman who wants to make a documentary about life in a modern suburban high school -- the kind he once attended.

He latches onto Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), the sort of seemingly brain-dead teen-ager with no interests, no desires, no clue and no prospects who says he's trying to figure things out. He does express a desire to be a talk-show host "like Conan O'Brien or the early Letterman," and figures he can do it if he can get any connections. Enter Toby Oxman, connected mainly to his own insecurities.

The Livingston family is your twisted mirror image of a sitcom family -- I suspect it's no coincidence that the surname is that of two child actors on "My Three Sons," and that Scooby's brothers are named Mike (Jonathan Osser) and Brady (Noah Fleiss). John Goodman, trying to keep a tight lid on his rising gorge, and Julie Hagerty, trying to keep everyone from getting upset, play the parents, Marty and Fern.

Their dinner table scenes are every parent's nightmare and too many families' reality -- the awful silences are better than the actual conversations. Toby's editor (Franka Potente) accuses him of turning the Livingstons into objects of derision, which he protests too much.

We might say the same thing of Solondz (others have in the past), but the Livingstons get the last word -- Marty defending his suburban lifestyle in a rant in Toby's film, and Scooby, his eyes opened at last, with the final sarcastic line.

Then there's the clip from Toby's film that mocks the floating plastic-bag scene from "American Beauty" -- another movie about a dysfunctional suburban family that includes a child with a cheerleader friend, a gay sub-angle and a character armed with a camera. It becomes apparent that while Solondz (who grew up in the New Jersey suburbs) finds darkness under the sunny facade, he has more sympathy for his characters than seems apparent at first -- and certainly more than "American Beauty" did for its floundering families.

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