[Screen It]


(2001) (Selma Blair, Paul Giamatti) (R)

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Drama: Two unrelated stories serve to show the effects of fictional and nonfictional storytelling.
In "Fiction," Vi (SELMA BLAIR) is a college student who, like her boyfriend Marcus (LEO FITZPATRICK) and fellow student Catherine (ALESKA PALLADINO), is taking a writing course taught by Pulitzer-Prize winning author Gary Scott (ROBERT WISDOM). Marcus, who suffers from cerebral palsy, has his latest work torn to shreds in class and worries that Vi is interested in Scott. When they break up, she indeed seeks out the smooth-talking man, only to get more than she bargained for.

In "Nonfiction," Toby Oxman (PAUL GIAMATTI) is a down and out shoe clerk who's trying to make it as a documentary filmmaker with the aid of his editor (FRANKA POTENTE) and cameraman (MIKE SCHANK). Wanting to do a film about high school students and the disillusionment of the college experience, Toby decides to focus on Scooby Livingston (MARK WEBBER), a slacker with no ambition, drive or future.

His attitude, behavior and announcement that he's not going to college is driving his parents, Marty (JOHN GOODMAN) and Fern (JULIE HAGERTY) crazy, while their second oldest son, Brady (NOAH FLEISS), is concerned that allegations about Scooby being gay might hurt his popularity at school, and youngest son Mikey (JONATHAN OSSER) seems obsessed with the family's live-in maid, Consuelo (LUPE ONTIVEROS), and her life.

As Toby continues making his film, the Livingstons try to cope with their various issues and problems, all leading up to a surprising conclusion that none of them anticipates.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
In the second story that makes up writer/director Todd Solondz's latest film, a minor character comments about a documentary filmmaker's treatment and view of the characters in his film and how he doesn't have much respect for them. Whether that's just a coincidence, a self-referential joke, or commentary of some sort, the same charge could be leveled against the filmmaker of this effort.

Entitled "Storytelling," the film is comprised of two parts - "Fiction" and "Nonfiction" - that tell two disparate stories that aren't related - except in theme - despite what most everyone will probably believe and continue to wait for until the bitter - and I mean bitter - end.

Like the filmmaker's previous efforts - namely 1995's "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Happiness" from 1998 - this one touches upon all sorts of unsavory and controversial subjects and makes no apologizes for its attempts to irritate, annoy or offend its viewers.

The first story here - "Fiction" - involves a variety of people in a college writing class and one young woman's separate sexual encounters with both her boyfriend who has cerebral palsy and her older, Pulitzer Prize-winning professor whose non-flinching criticism and Mr. Cool attitude have enticed her. He, of course, turns out to be a pathological seducer who ends up further belittling her by essentially raping her, at least psychologically.

The second story - "Nonfiction" - revolves around a dysfunctional family, their overworked and under-appreciated immigrant maid who ultimately gets her comeuppance against them, and the aspiring documentary filmmaker who captures much of their trials and tribulations on film.

In both stories, the various characters ultimately get what they deserve and/or were asking for, but some may be troubled by having that dished out by the hands of a black man and Latino woman respectively - thus making them the villains in the end - rather than just having the characters' actions, behavior and beliefs doing them in.

I'm not sure exactly what point Solondz is trying to make with his separate and unsavory finales - other than just to be controversial and/or shocking - or the overall stories for that matter (although they're open to all sorts of interpretations).

Thankfully, things aren't as completely bleak as they might otherwise seem. As in his previous films, the writer/director injects some amusing and at times quite funny material -- although much of it is admittedly rather barbed in nature - in an effort to offset more of the mean-spirited matter. Much of that comes from some decent dialogue that naturally stems from the plot developments. I have a feeling, though, that it won't be enough to appease most viewers enough regarding the rest of the film's moments.

The same holds true for the basic plot. Perhaps it's due to the shortened individual lengths, but neither story feels complete and instead come off as some elongated, morality-play skits. The switching of gears from one story to the next is bound to add to the sense and growing expectations that one or more characters or at least some element of "Fiction" will show up or somehow affect "Nonfiction." Alas, that's not the case.

Of the two stories, the first comes off as the most interesting despite its shorter running time. Armed with a few more amusing/humorous moments and a disturbing sex scene - that's blocked out by a large red box that's been digitally inserted into the shot to preserve the film's R rating - the segment is enticing mainly due to the performances of Selma Blair ("Legally Blonde," "Down to You") and Robert Wisdom ("Mighty Joe Young," "Face/Off").

They play the aspiring college writer and her Sidney Poitier type professor respectively, with his cool, smooth talking delivery and no holds barred opinions ultimately seducing her. While their eventual sexual encounter and the nebulous racism involved with it put a damper on the segment, it's more compelling than the second.

In it, a sad sack type shoe salesman-cum-documentary filmmaker focuses his camera on a high school slacker and his dysfunctional family, including the overworked, live-in maid. While the segment contains a plethora of volatile subject matter, the overall story feels far too flat and doesn't involve the viewer as well as it should.

Although the likes of Paul Giamatti ("Big Fat Liar," "Planet of the Apes"), John Goodman ("Monsters, Inc." "One Night at McCool's"), Mark Webber ("Snow Day," "Boiler Room") and Lupe Ontiveros ("Chuck & Buck," "As Good As It Gets") are all decent in their respective roles, something just doesn't gel regarding their particular subplots.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Osser ("Max Keeble's Big Move," "My Fellow Americans") steals nearly every scene he's in as a 5th grader who's too precocious for his own good (or that of others, for that matter), but Franka Potente ("The Princess and the Warrior," "Run, Lola, Run") is wasted in a small, nameless role.

Perhaps if the two individual stories had eventually connected in some fashion, then the overall end result might have come off as more poignant, disturbing or maybe even satisfying. As it stands, the film feels more like an experimental project designed simply to get under viewers' skins than a finished movie. Despite some decent moments and the potential to be quite compelling, this "Storytelling" fails to hook its audience as well as it needs to. Accordingly, and due to the film's overall ugly nature and treatment of its characters, the film rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed February 2, 2002 / Posted February 8, 2002

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