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Starring Selma Blair, Mark Webber, Julie Hagarty, Paul Giamatti and John Goodman
Written and Directed by Todd Solondz

IN SHORT: Funny, dark humor badly in need of a sense of hope. [Rated R for strong sexual content, language and some drug use. 87 minutes]

Writer/Director Todd Solondz is a guy we've been watching for the past couple of years. He's a fine writer whose focus on individuals that we would otherwise overlook or avoid yields concepts and, sometimes, stories that are brilliant. His first film, Welcome to the Dollhouse was phenomenal. His second, Happiness, made us anything but. We'd crosslink the reviews except for the fact that we can't find the damned things. Don't ask us why. We don't know. His third outing, Storytelling, is about as sharp and funny a dissection of college and suburban life as you can get. The problem for us is that, as it rips through the lives it details, it leaves us with no sense of hope for any of the characters, most of whom are so miserable that they have no idea how miserable they are.

Solondz has split his film into two sections and what relation there may be between the two is something that eluded us. The first part, called "fiction" relates a short story of a college coed (Selma Blair) who, snubbed by her cerebral palsey'd boyfriend (Leo Fitzpatrick), sleeps with their creative writing teacher (Robert Wisdom) and writes the experience to present to the class as a short story. This part rips by so quickly that we'll avoid mentioning more than the bare bones, other than to say that there is are real feelings of self-hatred plaguing each character. This would be an incredibly unpleasant sit, except for the fact that it is also extremely funny. The language gets extremely coarse at times. If this poses problems for you, avoid the film.

The second, called "non-fiction" is the story of a nice, suburban Jewish family. Set in Fairfield New Jersey, the eldest son, high school senior Scooby Livingston (Mark Webber), is the subject of a documentary being made by a first time filmmaker Toby Oxman (Paul Giamatti). Oxman is, in reality, a shoe salesman with big dreams and a video camera -- who has found willing participants in the Livingstons, parents Fern (Julie Hagarty) and Marty (John Goodman), brothers Brady (Noah Fleiss), a jock and Mikey (Jonathan Osser, whose talent is a major find), a precocious fifth grader and brownnose in training. The parents think the attention might give Scooby the focus he has been lacking. Scooby thinks Oxman may have "connections" to get him to the career path of his choice, not college but television as the host of a talk show, like Conan O'Brien's (and the real Conan O'Brien provides a great cameo appearance).

While Brady and Mike may be jealous of the attention their parents lavish on Scooby, Scooby dreams of seeing the parental units burned at the stake. Well, you know that old saying about being careful about what you wish for? Scooby wouldn't know fantasy from reality if it whacked him straight in the face. Which it will, again and again, all the while missing the bullseye of what this slacker can comprehend as real. Simply, if it ain't Scooby, it's nothing but Doo (to him).

As for the brothers, one suffers a major tragedy and, inadvertently, steals the focus of the documentary (and makes it something an audience is actually interested in watching). The other demonstrates a nasty, manipulative and potentially psychotic streak which will lead to nothing good when dad is set against the live in maid, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros).

We can't tell you how a story of college life relates to Jews in the suburbs of New Jersey. It may be that fact is reduced fiction in the first part of Storytelling. In part two, the fictional family is, by the documentarians, made "fact". If your audience is like ours, once you see the drift of the finished documentary, you may understand the reactions of laughter and disbelief. But if you are like us, you may find the negative currents that sit like a gray cloud over Storytelling overwhelm any potential positive aspects in the stories told. Then again, we're suburban New York Jews ourselves. We recognized aspects of the "fictional" characters in many of our kith and kin. That may be too close for objective review.

On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Nine Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to Storytelling, he would have paid . . .


dateflick level, and particularly recommended to the film freaks out there. If you're familiar with Todd Solondz' earlier work, try to see Storytelling with a large crowd. The laughter will be contagious.

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