Fact or Fiction?

The filmmaker behind 'Welcome to the Dollhouse' and 'Happiness' brilliantly exhibits the horror of suburban realism.

Aristotle claimed that people went to see tragedies in order to purge themselves of negative emotions. If that's true, then Storytelling is the spiritual equivalent of a 12-hour high colonic. Pretty much the most relentlessly negative film ever made (except for director Todd Solondz's other movies) Storytelling is also the best thing to hit theaters since David Lynch's Mulholland Drive. In fact, if it weren't for Mulholland Drive, Storytelling would be the best thing to hit theaters in the last year.

Solondz's style, last seen in Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse, is to produce scenes and dialogue that are so true-to-life that you can't help but be horrified and embarrassed by them. Storytelling is his most fluid and watchable film so far, in that it's spot-on editing, acting and script make it ceaselessly enjoyable while it burns tiny cigarette holes in your psyche.

The film is divided into two parts, with no narrative connection between them. Instead, they're thematically linked, as each looks at ways of producing art from real life. The first film, "Fiction," centers around a creative writing class at a Midwestern university in the mid-'80s.

Robert Wisdom plays the writing instructor, the only black man on the campus. Wisdom does an awesome, evil deadpan, showing the same zero-state of emotion and background of hatred when he trashes his students' stories and when he makes some of them perform degrading sex acts in his disgusting basement apartment.

Selma Blair and Leo Fitzpatrick play two of his students, Vi and Marcus. Vi is dating Marcus because Marcus has cerebral palsy, and she thinks that this makes him more sensitive and worthwhile than a physically fit person. When Marcus's sloppy and sentimental story, which ends with the line "CP no longer stood for Cerebral Palsy ... now it stood for Cerebral Person," is panned by their writing instructor, he breaks up with Vi out of vindictiveness and spite.

As Vi spirals into post-break-up oblivion, she stops to write up the plot of the film to that point, which she then presents to her writing class. This gives writer/director Solondz an opportunity to put the most obvious criticisms of his film into the mouths of the annoying college kids who are in the writing class. It's a mean and evil trick which works so well it would make Borges jealous.

After "Fiction" closes, Storytelling fades to black for a change of time, scenery, action and, notably, color. The first part of Storytelling features darkly lit, washed-out tones, whereas the second part, "Fact," is shot in bright light and highly saturated hues.

"Fact" follows documentary filmmaker Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) as he follows 17-year-old Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber) around for a film about "modern teenagers." Scooby has the kind of dedication to youthful anomie, amotivational living and casual drugs that could get him elected president if only he had the right family connections. Instead, his hyper-suburbanite parents just use their money and influence to get his dopey, undeserving ass into an Ivy League school. Hey, wait a minute ....

Scooby's father (John Goodman) and mother (Julie Hagerty) think of themselves as morally upright, charitable people. Meanwhile, they treat their maid (Lupe Ontiveros, who's so good in the role they should invent an Oscar for "Best Performance As A Maid" and then snub her by not even nominating her because she's way too good for an Oscar) like a slave. Only their youngest son, 10-year-old Mikey (Jonathan Osser), even speaks to her, and when he does it's such an accurate depiction of an ignorant child of privilege that it'll make your skin crawl.

No one in the Livingston family seems to have any clue what anyone else in the family is actually like, and they mostly relate to each other by trotting out prepared sentiment during their enforced family dinners. Only Scooby refuses to participate, but this hardly makes him heroic or sentimental. Rather, he's just devoid of interest and is incapable of manufacturing it to please his family.

All this is gold for filmmaker Toby Oxman, and, though he starts with good intentions, his film quickly turns into a vicious exploitation piece that's designed to humiliate his subjects. It's not that Oxman is evil, it's just that he's failed at everything in his life up to this point, and he now senses that he can make something of himself, even if it involves sacrificing the Livingstons.

Whereas the first part of Storytelling has a woman writing a "fictional" story that is all fact, the second part shows how careful editing can make an amusing fiction out of factual filmmaking. Both parts are about people misunderstanding each other, usually with brutal results. It might be hard to sit through, and I wouldn't recommend it to someone who's trying to quit taking lithium, but it's so spot-on that I found myself ceaselessly entertained in spite of the visceral horror of watching people behave in precisely the manner in which people actually behave.

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