Storytelling tells two unrelated stories. One observes creative writing students and their amorous adventures. In the longer episode, an aspiring documentary filmmaker follows the ups and mostly downs of a dysfunctional suburban family.
In the first story, a shorter piece titled Fiction, collegians Vi and Marcus are creative-writing students having an affair. In class, Marcus reads the story that reveals the affair and the joy it brings him, but his black professor, Mr. Scott, minces no words in criticizing Marcus' work. Later at a bar, Mr. Scott picks up Vi, takes her home and makes crude love to her. In class, Vi reads aloud her short story about her encounter with Scott, who again has no praise except to note that at least it has a beginning, middle and end. In Storytelling's second story, Non-Fiction, loser Toby Oxman longs to be a documentary filmmaker. After he meets unmotivated, inarticulate high schooler Scooby Livingston, Toby convinces Scooby's family to let him make a documentary about them. Father Marty Livingston is at odds with Scooby, but gets him into Princeton by making a fat contribution to the University's alumni fund; middle brother Brady suffers a serious accident in a football game, and youngest brother Mikey hypnotizes his father and gets him to fire maid Consuelo because she is lazy, which results in her exacting a terrible revenge.
Challenged in both episodes to play characters with limited appeal, none of the actors deliver stand-out performances. Nor, to their credit, do they embarrass. In the very brief Fiction, we're given too little of Selma Blair as writing student Vi, Leo Fitzpatrick as handicapped beau Marcus and Robert Wisdom as their brutalizing professor, who all phone in routine performances. In Non-Fiction, Paul Giamatti convinces as consummate loser documentarian wannabe Toby, and Mark Webber has little to do as aimless black sheep son Scooby. John Goodman and Julie Hagerty intermittently amuse as clueless suburban parents, but Lupe Ontiveros as maid Consuelo gets no opportunity to show that, beyond her hapless fate and grief, she is capable of a horrendous act.
There is no question that writer/director Todd Solondz, who delivered the indie hit Welcome to the Dollhouse and the infamous and offensive-to-many Happiness, is obsessed with certain themes--the emptiness of suburban life, the vulnerability of young people and the pervasiveness of sexual hypocrisies. Returning to these themes, Solondz resorts to shock tactics to jolt the otherwise dull and deadpan goings-on into something compelling for audiences, as if deliberately matching a tedious milieu with a similarly uninspired style. Care was given to contrast Toby's documentary footage with actual scenes of the family in motion, but subtle technical devices are no substitute for the compelling characters that are lacking here. More than Solondz's previous films, Storytelling is a less accessible effort that will be an acquired taste for the curious. With characteristic drollness, Solondz bravely embraces provocative themes, but he too rarely hits the mark with any wit, insight or humanity. Instead, resorting to cheesy shock value and surprise tactics, Solondz serves up an abundance of profanity and some unsettling sex scenes: in the first episode, a large red rectangle obscures the brutal encounter between student Vi and her professor, Mr. Scott, and in the second story an abrupt cutaway truncates a seemingly gratuitous scene in which high schooler Scooby gives in to oral sex with a male classmate.
In spite of its hot topics--sexual and middle class hypocrisy, youthful vulnerability, exploitation--Storytelling's audacity arrives cold.