Storytelling

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“Storytelling” is not a departure for Todd Solondz. If you liked his previous works, “Welcome to the Dollhouse” and “Happiness,” both of which were nearly brilliant and at times nearly unbearable to watch, then you will like this one.

It is not on a par with his previous efforts — largely because the envelope-pushing writer/director uses a lot of his time to respond to his critics, which is rarely as much fun for audiences as it is for auteurs.

The film is divided into two segments, labeled “Fiction and “Non-fiction,” which refers not to the movie (both segments are fictional), but to the types of stories being discussed.

The first is barely 30 minutes long and has already earned the most controversy — due to its graphic sex scene — despite being an underdeveloped story with more ideas than executions. It is about an embittered college professor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), a Pulitzer Prize winner who now teaches creative writing to half-motivated students who can’t write. Among them are Vi (Selma Blair) and her cerebral palsy-stricken boyfriend Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), who has written an autobiographical story that is utter crap.

After a fight with Marcus, Vi goes to a bar, where she encounters the cool, forbidding — but exotic — Mr. Scott. The evening turns into aggressive sex, with unsettling racial overtones, about which Vi writes a story that no one believes.

Part two, the entirely unrelated “Non-fiction,” is about a loser filmmaker named Toby (Paul Giamatti), who wants to make a documentary about the current condition of the American high school student. He chooses as his subject New Jersey burnout Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), a kid with no ambition except to be a TV talk show host, and even that he pursues only casually. His ineffective Jewish parents (John Goodman, Julie Hagerty), all-American brother Brady (Noah Fleiss) and precocious little brother Mikey (Jonathan Osser) become part of the film, too, and the question becomes how sympathetic Toby is going to be toward his subjects.

This becomes the question about Solondz, too. As is often the case with his work, we are often unsure whether we’re allowed to laugh or not. Where is the line between funny and not funny? Usually, it’s a matter of distance: If we feel too attached to the characters we won’t find their tragedies amusing. Solondz dares to introduce real, honest characters, and then have awful things happen to them for the sake of comedy. And, as Scooby points out, it doesn’t matter, as long as the movie’s a success.

But is that true? After Vi reads her story to the class — an account of what actually happened to her, mind you — one of her outraged classmates says, “Why do people have to write about such ugly characters?” Which of course is one of the chief complaints leveled against Solondz. Similarly, the “Non-fiction” segment suggests that sympathy for one’s characters is irrelevant, as long as your film can get the attention — positive or negative — that it needs in order to make money. Does Solondz really believe that, or is he mocking the argument against him by pretending to agree with it?

Seen just as a movie, “Storytelling” is angst-filled and uncomfortable, and reasonably entertaining. The “Fiction” segment should either be fleshed out into an entire film or cut altogether, but the “Non-fiction” one stands very well. It is ultimately the more disturbing of the two, if that’s a selling point to you.

It is hard, however, to see “Storytelling” as just a movie, given the amount of time Solondz takes to deal with his critics. It’s self-indulgent, really: The guy’s made two films, and already he’s doing a film about his own beliefs. And it raises another question: Does pointing out your own flaws before the critics can get to it make the flaws OK?

B (; R, abundant harsh profanity, some graphic.)

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