Dir: Todd Solondz, 2001
I watched this last night.
I had been putting it off for years. I saw Happiness back in about 2003: it was really engaging, but there were one or two moments that were a bit tough to get through. Aronofsky has a reputation for making intense films, but Happiness was almost too much even for me. The scene with the father and son on the sofa, you know?
I bought Storytelling at the same time, but it remained unwatched for a long time. Eventually I figured ‘why not’ and here we are.
Storytelling is certainly lighter fare than the soul-sapping Happiness, but not by much. I knew when it came out that it was composed of ‘Fiction’ and ‘Non-fiction’ segments, and that a rather masochistic writing teacher was involved. That’ll be the ‘Fiction’ bit.
Before seeing the film, I had imagined it as being split into two equal halves. While both felt like they lasted an eternity, the ‘Fiction’ bit seemed to pass more quickly. The film could really have done without this segment, which Todd Solondz seems to have included both to fill time (even in two parts, it’s barely 90 minutes in the physical world) and to make you die inside a little more.
‘Fiction’ amused me, but I was in a funny mood while watching it. The writing teacher’s sadism in coldly pulling apart the feel-good short story that the student with cerebral palsy had penned was pretty funny. So was that student then dumping his girlfriend, who then started bitching about him in a bar to the aforementioned callous teacher.
The teacher then took sexual advantage of the girl. But Solondz plays it in a way that nobody is a good guy. Not the bitchy, self-loathing girl. Not the student with cerebral palsy who took his writing-shitness at out on the girl. Certainly not the sexually predatory writing teacher. And none of the ghouls who bit-featured in the class scenes. They were a combination of idiotic prudes, clueless hacks and a particularly attractive super-bitch. Nice vignette.
‘Non-fiction’ was about a pathetic shoe salesman, Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), masquerading as a documentary maker. We are introduced to him (and his neuroses) when he makes a phone call to a woman he knew from high school. She is something, and he isn’t. Despite that, we feel no sympathy. We even feel bad for her when she reveals he didn’t want to go to the school dance with her. In hindsight, he was doing her a favour.
Toby bumps into school student Scooby Livingston in the toilets, who is unfortunate enough to get involved in Oxman’s project. It’s ostensibly about the college admission process, and the stress it puts students through. It ends up being a protracted, malicious, smirk at Scooby’s life and family.
And what a family. He has two brothers: the middle one, Brady, is a jock who isn’t bothered that Scooby might be gay, but wants him to pretend he’s not so Brady’s cache doesn’t plummet. The youngest is Mikey, who is very intelligent but seemingly devoid of empathy. I guess he’s supposed to be autistic, though nothing is officially explained.
Throughout the film, Mikey is desperate to let his dad, Marty, allow him to try his hypnosis. Ever-busy with family and business affairs, Marty rebuffs Mikey. Nevertheless, Mikey continues. On and on, ‘can I try to hypnotise you, dad?’
I recall there being one adult character in Happiness that you could possibly sympathise with. Among a cast of kiddie-fiddlers and chubby stalkers was the young woman who seemed to be a massive victim. I forget the details – I repressed my memory of that film as you would any disturbing experience – but that seems to be how it went.
We only have Scooby to root for in Storytelling, even if he is utterly doomed from the start. Completing the main cast are the overweight, homophobic, conservative/Conservative Marty (played by the ever-fantastic John Goodman), the long-suffering wife/mother, and their aged immigrant cleaner Consuelo.
Scooby is perpetually lost, confused (sexually, psychologically) and stoned. He wants to be famous and successful, but has no idea how to go about it; he certainly doesn’t want to work for it. In him, Toby sees a microcosm of post-Columbine disaffected suburban youth. He also sees a photogenic idiot he can ride to the Sundance festival.
So Toby talks to Scooby, meets the family, and they decide to make a film. Solondz, being the misanthrope he clearly wants us to think he is, doesn’t even make Scooby sympathetic. Scooby is a cretin, who does want everything without putting any effort in. and he isn’t going to achieve anything, clearly. But, by default as the one actual human in an exhibition of grotesquery, we root for him.
I saw an Icelandic film in 2001. It was called Angels of the Universe (Englar alheimsins), and its soundtrack featured the first sign that Sigur Rós were getting boring. It chronicled one young man’s descent into insanity. Not only was his mind against him, but so too was the world. Catharsis came in suicide.
While Solondz must have wrapped on Storytelling by the time Angels… came out, it’s almost as if he had a subconscious urge to one-up the Icelandic wrist-slash-athon.
Led on by Toby during the making of the documentary (as with the short story in ‘Fiction’, it is irredeemably shit: not only are humans worthless in Solondz’ world, but so too is their art), Scooby eventually finds out there is to be a screening.
His car gets stolen, so he gets the subway to his destination. Once there, he sees Toby has set him up as the idiot he is. As with ‘Fiction’, there is a faceless audience of ghouls. Instead of pouring moral indignation on our protagonist, as they did in the first half, they laugh maniacally at this innocent fool.
Meanwhile, Mikey’s borderline-sociopathic conversational style has offended Consuela. Not only does she have to work her fingers to the bone (not literally – though I envisage that for the next Solondz film I see) for the family, but her grandson has been executed for rape and murder. Mikey is unsympathetic and tells Consuelo her grandson deserved to die. Well maybe he did.
Eventually, after Brady has been rendered comatose by an unnecessarily rough (American) football tackle, Mikey is allowed to try hypnotising Marty. When he’s under, Mikey instructs that he will now be the most important thing in his dad’s life, and that Consuelo – who snapped at him for the execution routine – should be fired because she’s lazy.
Incredibly, the hypnosis worked. Marty beamed whenever he saw Mikey, and he fired Consuelo. True to her family’s style, she reacts by gassing the Livingston family while they sleep, and while Scooby is returning from his big adventure in New York.
Scooby returns to find his family dead and Toby present, with cameraman in tow. Toby is anguished at what’s gone down, but Scooby’s had enough. With blank stare, he merely tells Toby his film was a hit, and the credits roll.
This is not a bad film. Well, not in as much as it was proficiently constructed. It’s a bad piece of drama, though. Solondz presents nothing to hope for: humanity, generally and specifically, is horrible. I suppose one moral conclusion offered here is that bad things happen to bad people. But, as with Happiness, the worst things happen to the one decent person.
I recommend this film in the spirit it was made in: sadistically. Solondz doesn’t care about you, or your enjoyment. And, like a sociopathic chain letter, I’m passing it on to you. There is nothing to hope for, and we’re all doomed. What a message. There is no depth to the film, but the worst kind of hollowness. I dissed Garden State for its empty, cod-intellectual smugness, but this is empty, cod-intellectual misanthropy. I’ll let you decide which is worse.
Finally, I know I have committed a cardinal sin of reviewing in this post, but it was intentional given the inherent unworthiness of the film. What intentional mistake did I make? Storytelling. Ho, ho, ho.