In the ‘90s American indie boom, offbeat cinephile directors like Tarantino and the Coens were propelled into the mainstream. New comedic voices such as Kevin Smith and Richard Linklater also straddled the independent/Hollywood divide, a distinction that had never been absolute and was only growing more ambiguous. Todd Solondz’s sensibilities either couldn’t or wouldn’t work for the system. His work doesn’t quite have the easier-to-process bad taste of an iconoclast like John Waters, who actually tried his hand at a medium budgeted sex comedy (A Dirty Shame) and had another film neutered into a family-friendly musical (Hairspray). Instead, Solondz’s films remain dangerous, creating empathetic figures out of villified archetypes. When applied to a paedophile in Happiness the result was too controversial for many to appreciate the film’s contribution to the discourse on American suburban family life, but Storytelling is different.
The main part of Storytelling centres around amateur documentarian Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) who decides to make a film about the modern American teenager. His camera settles on Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), a stoner on the verge of dropping out of high school. The issues of documentary ethics are raised; Toby’s motivations are suspect, but unavoidably intertwined with our own as an audience. He wants to revisit his high school experience, condemning the authority figures and institutions that failed him, while proclaiming “I like these people”. A series of jokes, expected to be at Scooby’s expense, are reversed, turned against his dysfunctional middle class family and Toby’s pretension. Scooby comes across as the smartest and most dignified among them.
Toby’s desperation to make a profound statement is perfectly suited for Giamatti’s overly-nervous mannerisms, and leads to the film’s funniest and most biting moments. It’s as if Solondz recognised the desire within himself to make such a film and recognised the only way to avoid another American Beauty was through the inclusion of such a proxy character. American Beauty is in fact referenced directly, in a parody of the “plastic bag” moment. It’s an interesting comparison as that film transforms a suburban patriarch with a dead-end life into a selfish folk hero and a creepy voyeur into a poetic soul, all without a hint of self-awareness. Every theme touched upon in American Beauty - suburban malaise, teenage rebellion, teenage sexuality, stagnant marriages - is examined deeper, quicker and in more interesting and honest ways in Storytelling. Toby Oxman is the Sam Mendes in all of us, looking for simplistic yet superficially profound answers in other people to our own sense of dissatisfaction in life, and, not finding them, instead settling for cheap laughs.
(Interesting that Toby’s camera-man is played by Mike Schank, Mark Borchardt’s friend who appears in American Movie. Mark and Mike initially appear as jokes but through the course of the film we come to appreciate and respect their friendship and Mark’s enthusiasm.)
While Toby is preoccupied with indulging himself, he misses the actual reason Scooby is the way he is - his family. John Goodman’s corpulence has rarely been used to better effect than as the father Marty Livingston, who would rather intimidate his son into taking the SATs, going to college, etc. than actually ask him what he wants to do with his life. Julie Hagerty plays the shrinking mother Fern, who tries to help but lacks all perspective (in one dinner conversation she puzzles out how if it weren’t for Hitler, their ancestors would have stayed in Germany and they’d all be talking German…). The youngest son, Mikey (Jonathan Osser), is a sociopath who uses manipulation and hypnotism (seriously) to get what he wants, not least from the maid Consuela (Lupe Ontiveros). The middle son Brady (Noah Fleiss) obediently plays football, a sport he doesn’t understand, but gets little attention.
Yet even these are tragic rather than figures of fun - Marty will never be as close to his sons as he wants to be, and a third act twist pulls the rug out from a lot of the laughter we’ve had at their expense. Solondz portrays modern Western civilisation in all its ugliness, but there’s always an empathy, even if it’s just through Belle & Sebastian’s tremendous but surprisingly gentle score - they too, like Scooby, are products of a system that’s outside of their control and beyond their awareness. By the end of the film, Scooby has the one-up on them - he’s realised that life is a sick joke and usually at your expense.
(STORYTELLING is a movie comprised of two different stories. The writer did not want to give anything away from the first story, so the preceding analysis is incomplete. The publisher apologizes for the writer’s whims, but he has final editorial approval.)