”You a pervert?” a student reasonably asks the older stranger grinning at him while urinating in a high school lavatory in Storytelling. ”No, actually I’m a documentary filmmaker,” comes the punchline — and the aggressive, alienating punch of Todd Solondz’s latest bulletin from the New Jersey school of existential nausea. That the teenager instinctively nails the link between directing and depravity is just one of the many acrid jokes in this two-part drama from the provocateur who made ”Welcome to the Dollhouse” and ”Happiness.” As with those important late-1990s indies, Solondz creates a unique landscape of suburban-bred misery, hypocrisy, and vulnerability, a bleak vista that continually forces viewers to shift sympathies and antipathies.
Unlike his previous films, however, ”Storytelling” is also defensive and ultimately vain in its self-regard: For the first time, the filmmaker reveals how much he cares what others think of him, daring a viewer to come up with any criticism he himself can’t put forth first. And this makes for a cleverness that undermines Solondz’s otherwise fascinating worldview.
The movie comprises two unrelated tales with study points telegraphed by their titles, ”Fiction” and ”Non-Fiction.” In the first, set at a mediocre college in the mid-1980s, a black Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (Robert Wisdom) wields power over his white students by bluntness (”Do you think I have potential as a writer?” ”No”), and over the women in his class, in particular, by his seductive, destructive sexual games. ”Don’t be racist,” a student (Selma Blair) reminds herself in the story’s most daring and disquieting scene, before bending over for her prof’s sexual dominance (an act resentfully, showily covered by Solondz, who uses a big red rectangle to suit the MPAA’s R requirements). Can this young student make fiction of her pain? Has she been living a fiction that needed to be brutally destroyed in order to transform her from a pretentious liberal into a better writer?
In ”Fiction,” Solondz leaves some blank space for discussion — and time, too, to appreciate the unflinching performances by Wisdom and Blair. In ”Non-Fiction,” there’s no such room for consideration, so loaded is the travelogue with peeves, taunts, and exposés as iffy as those in a Geraldo special: The litany includes indictments of bullying fathers (John Goodman), clueless mothers (Julie Hagerty), and insufferable siblings (Noah Fleiss, Jonathan Osser). There are stops to jeer at a phony display of gaudy upper-middle-class suburban Jewishness, and the casually horrible treatment by those same suburbanites of miserable live-in immigrant maids (personified — one hopes for the last time — by the wonderful Lupe Ontiveros).
But mostly Solondz luxuriates in the symbiotic carnivorousness of ”truthful” moviemaking. Paul Giamatti slides with creepy ease into the role of documentarian Toby Oxman; Mark Webber is poignant as Scooby Livingston, the directionless high schooler whose life Toby identifies with, mocks, and destroys. Solondz may be suggesting that the crap in a director’s own life can’t help but crapify his subjects — even if there’s real crappiness in the suburbs. But he’s also crapping on the idea expressed in the previous sentence. Cute. Now cut the crap.