Within five minutes of watching Todd Solondz's Storytelling, you recognise that this is the same director who gave the world what is probably the most evil black comedy of them all in Happiness. Solondz presents dysfunctional worlds in which a clear heroic protagonist is completely absent. Somehow however, his characters seem completely human and 'realistic', and it’s the latter notion that Solondz explores in Storytelling.
Split into two sections, a half-hour short entitled "Fiction" and a longer second half entitled "Non-Fiction", Storytelling effortlessly destroys the audiences' perception of realism, and how a combination of reality and 'storytelling' will always remove any 'truth' the image had. Solondz knows he is posing an unanswerable question - "How real/unreal is the essence of a story?" and yet he doesn't care about finding the answer. Storytelling exists solely to spark an awareness of the question on the audiences part.
The two stories are completely unrelated to each other in the plot sense. The first, "Fiction", tells of two student lovers named Vi (Selma Blair) and Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick). Marcus suffers from cerebral palsy, and believes that the kinky aspects of their relationship have gone, and that Vi is now only going out with him out of kindness. Their relationship isn't helped when Vi refuses to defend Marcus' creative writing essay during class, when the formidable Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom) destroys it. The second story, "Non-Fiction", tells of an unsuccessful documentary filmmaker named Toby (Paul Giamatti) who decides to try and film 'fly-on-the-wall' style the life of teenager Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber). Scooby is the apathetic teenager with the dysfunctional family, ruled by the short-tempered father Marty (John Goodman) and Fern (Julie Hagerty).
As a plot, Storytelling is hard to summarise, and it's also hard to explain the relevance of the two stories in relation to one another. Basically, Solondz is saying that every single member of society bases reality on a foundation of lies. If this is true, the terms "Fiction" and "Non-Fiction" are irrelevant; Solondz uses them as vague chapter settings to heighten their irrelevancy. "Fiction" is no different in terms of stylistic setting to "Non-Fiction", and despite a more 'realistic' setting has considerably more far-fetched story events occurring. It's surely an ironic act on the part of Solondz that he casts Mike Schank, the loveable cameraman from American Movie, a documentary that contained such absurd sequences and 'characters' that people had to check whether it was 'real' or not. Documentary subjects can be just as manipulated into conventional storylines (a beginning, middle and an end) as much as fictional subjects can. This is why Solondz deliberately has Toby act as a documentary filmmaker, allowing the audience to see how much creation is involved in a documentary that generates its realistic and authentic tag.
Once you swallow the reality-based-on-lie argument that Solondz drenches the film in, you can happily sit back and indulge your humour in some of the funniest sequences committed to film in the last couple of years. Every character is typically drawn from the Solondz textbook; each completely cynical and self-serving without any Hollywood balancing. Maybe this is what makes Solondz stand out from the crowd - his characters have no redeeming values whatsoever without being evil or stereotypes, and yet we never see the other side of their personality. Take Mr. Scott for example, played with brooding venom by Robert Wisdom. He's vicious, bitter, destructive, he always gets the girl despite treating them with utmost contempt, and yet that's it; we aren't told why, nor is he given a chance to redeem himself. The sequence in which he criticises Markus' creative essay is hilarious, because his directness is so strong it actually offends.
All of the performances in the film are excellent, and its hard to rate one actor over another. Selma Blair pulls out the stops in a short role, and her bravery adds confidence to the film's aura. Mark Webber gives Scooby the typical dosage of teen-angst without turning into James Dean. He floats through the world in a dazed and uncaring manner similar to Brett Easton Ellis' Clay in Less Than Zero. It's also worth mentioning young Johnathan Osser as Mikey, Scooby's young intellectual for a brother. Mikey resembles a pre-pubescent Matthew Broderick, demonstrating considerably more intelligence than the rest of his family, and considerably more cunning. The scene in which he tries to hypnotise his dad so that he will fire the maid is one of the film's best moments.
Fans of the Scottish band Belle & Sebastian were delighted at the news that they would be contributing the soundtrack for the film. However, after the group 'hit-the-wall' during their musical creativity only six or so minutes of their thirty minute soundtrack found its way into the film. Ironically, the most prominent Belle & Sebastian song that does feature in Storytelling is taken from their first album Tigermilk.
As a film, Storytelling will cause an uninterested indifference amongst most of its audience, who will find the two unrelated stories bizarre by their own existence. It certainly isn't a pleasurable film, and if you didn't like Happiness the film will do nothing for you, but overall Storytelling is one of the best sleeper films of the last couple of years. At just under ninety minutes in length, it should be squeezed into anyone's viewing schedule, just for its take on the issues of reality and exploitation of one's own truth.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen 1.85:1, the transfer is very clean and very sharp, if slightly dull in terms of colour tone. Images are presented with no trace of edge enhancement or artefacts, and grain is absent. Incidentally, this is the uncut version of the film, as the MPAA objected to a graphic sex scene in the film and so Solondz covered it up with a huge orange square, as if making a protest statement. This was passed at the MPAA in order to achieve an 'R' rating. However, Storytelling on region 2 is devoid of any orange square.
Presented in 5.1 surround, the sound mix is clearly audible with strong defined ranges of spatial channelling for the dialogue and background elements. Storytelling is a dialogue-driven film, and so will never act as a reference for your speakers, but the mix is dynamic enough to complement the film.
Menu: A nicely designed menu that remains faithful to the artwork of the film's publicity items. There is even an option to jump straight to either the "Fiction" or "Non-Fiction" parts of the film.
Packaging: Entertainment In Video give Storytelling a mostly bland packaging that incorporates the main cover from the film's poster and the usual one-line quotes of page on the back. Presented in an amaray casing with a fold-out booklet insert that contains chapter listings and a guide to EIV's other releases.
Trailer: Only the trailer is present, and it is a funny and quirky offering that maintains a certain mystique about the film.
Despite the lack of extras and an offbeat plot, Storytelling is a hysterically funny satire on the issues of reality and politically correct exploitation at the start of the twenty-first century. Todd Solondz is clearly an acquired taste, but by now you should know what to expect.