In his movies 'Welcome to the Dollhouse,' 'Happiness' and now 'Storytelling,' director Todd Solondz looks at the world through eyes that aren't so much jaded as they are scarred over, itchy and painful. Calling Solondz a misanthrope is like calling Bill Gates rich Ñ he's so far beyond simple misanthropy that there should be a new word coined just to describe him.
Billed as a dark comedy, the two-part 'Storytelling' is chock-full of our boy's trademark obsessions with ugly sex, unpleasant people and suburban despair.
In part one, 'Fiction,' Solondz fetishizes academia in what feels like a twisted John Updike short story: College student Vi (Selma Blair) tires of her cerebral palsy-afflicted boyfriend and gravitates toward Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), the sadistic African-American professor who teaches her writing class.
The author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning 'A Sunday Lynching,' Mr. Scott bears a seething resentment toward teaching a bunch of untalented, rich white kids Ñ girls, mostly Ñ that is palpable. Freshening up in Mr. Scott's bathroom, Vi is horrified to find explicit Polaroids of one of her classmates, bound and gagged. She rocks back and forth, murmuring, 'Don't be racist É don't be racist,' talking herself into what turns out to be an excruciatingly abusive sexual encounter.
The scene Ñ censored for us delicate American viewers with a big orange square over the offending copulation Ñ is predictably demeaning for Vi. When she turns the encounter into another poorly written short story for Mr. Scott's class, her savaging at the hands of her classmates is both uncomfortable to watch and strangely funny; I mean, what did she expect?
In the second, longer vignette, 'Non-Fiction,' fledgling documentarian Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti) worms his way into the life of a well-off suburban family as he makes a film about their teen-age son, Scooby (Mark Webber).
Sullen and disaffected, Scooby hasn't a clue what he'd like to do with his life other than to be famous. When he lies back to allow his gay best friend to service him sexually, Scooby closes his eyes and fantasizes about Conan O'Brien offering him a job as his sidekick.
Typical for Solondz, the characters that make up Scooby's family don't fare any better: His dad, Marty (John Goodman), is wound so tight that he makes a simple request to pass the salt sound like a threat of violence. His vapid mother (Julie Hagerty) plays the traditional sitcom peacekeeper role. One of his younger brothers is a jock, and the youngest is an obnoxious, smug fifth-grader.
The cavalier and ultimately cruel way they mistreat their Salvadoran maid, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros), is the catalyst that seals the family's ultimate fate.
In the meantime, Solondz satirizes his own obsession with suburbia and even lampoons fellow filmmakers; Toby's movie is titled 'American Scooby' and features an artsy shot of a straw wrapper dancing in the wind.
'Storytelling' is Solondz Lite, neither as rich and deftly crafted as 'Dollhouse' nor as grotesque as 'Happiness.' A common theme remains, though. Solondz has little sympathy for the characters that he puts on-screen.