Todd Solondz is surely America's most austere filmmaker, creating works that might well give him a substantial audience if he made tragic movies, in the spirit, say, of Robert Bresson. But as it happens he makes comedies. Not comedies that you or I would mistake for good wholesome fun, or even unwholesome fun. He makes comedies that most people mistake for tragedies, and if he thinks we're having too good a time he ratchets up the tension until we stop laughing. For Solondz, the barest hint of a curled lip is the equivalent of a belly laugh.
"Storytelling," in just 83 minutes, is both his most austere and his most adventurous film to date. It is divided in two: an opening segment called "Fiction," and a second called "Nonfiction." The two parts seemingly have nothing in common, and yet in some metaphysical way they belong together - more, they are inseparable. "Fiction" is set in a public university or community college, where a black professor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), making a career out of an early Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, now teaches creative writing by humiliating his students, using ominous silence and a threatening visage to make his points. One of the students, Vi (Selma Blair), is attracted to him, which leads to a sexual encounter that Solondz films in, we may suppose, all its graphic exposure, both literal and metaphorical; except that for American release he has had to cover the action itself with what he describes as a 'Soviet-red' square over vital body parts, in order to get an R rating. Since we know perfectly well what is going on under the mask, and the scene is in no way titillating, we can watch and listen and respond to the myriad overtones that Solondz hints at. It is a powerful, almost shattering moment that would be unbearable if it were not distanced so much that we get the wit underneath it all. The wit comes because that is not the end of the film; Vi writes about it, and Mr. Scott critiques it.
The second part of "Storytelling," "Nonfiction," appears to be totally unrelated, and in a literal sense it is. A weak and failed thirtyish man, a shoestore clerk named Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti), makes one last leap for fame. He will make a documentary about a young high school senior confronting the question of college. The senior he chooses is Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), a slacker's slacker, perhaps gay, definitely a heavy toker. Scooby also wants to be famous; he wants to be a late-night TV host, the next Conan O'Brien, though he has no idea of how one might get there, nor any interest in finding out.
Scooby lives with his family. Dad is John Goodman, forever sending Scooby away from the dining table for infinitesimal violations of decorum. Mom is Julie Hagerty, a scatterbrained ditherer. Scooby's two brothers are the jock Brady, to whom he is an embarrassment, and precocious fifth-grader Mikey, a chatterbox who is full of news and interesting trivia he's just discovered. The family's live-in maid, from El Salvador, is Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros). But as in all of Solondz's films, nothing is extraneous, nothing is unimportant. Pay attention; he knows just where he is taking us.
In structure, we see the family both through Solondz's camera and through Toby's, with the film stepping forward and back to make certain points and vary our perspective. What is Solondz getting at? He is laying a surprise for us. Mikey (Jonathan Osser) keeps pestering his father to please just let him try to hypnotize him, which he finally does. That act seals the fate of many people and changes the lives of others before the film is over. It is a stroke of genius on Solondz's part to have found in his suburbia and his suburban family an act and a moment so powerful that it becomes emblematic of a whole society. Nothing is wasted; in this quiet, severe film he has made a statement that has repercussions for us all. And yes, it's very funny. In a Solondz kind of way.