Someone should tell Welcome to the Dollhouse director Todd Solondz that telling a good story takes more than just brooding irony. Although his latest, the dark comedic satire Storytelling, contains a few redeeming moments of clarity, it ultimately comes off as labored and frustrating. The 95-minute film contains two separate, disjointed tales that give the entire project a distinctly uneven feel.
In the first section, a 26-minute piece entitled “Fiction,” a distraught white college student has a sexual escapade with her Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American professor. As a result, she suffers a severe identity crisis. The only purpose served by this segment, aside from shock value, is to set the stage for the next portion of Storytelling, “Non-Fiction.”
The thin thread that connects the two stories becomes apparent as “Non-Fiction” begins to unfold: that thread being the emptiness of the white suburban experience. In this story, about an upper-middle class family that becomes the subject of a documentary about American youth, the characters are mostly detestable cliches. As the father, John Goodman is Marty Livingston, giving one of the film’s better performances, yet basically just portraying a meaner version of the suburban dad he played on “Roseanne.” Lupe Ontiveros shines subtly as the family’s maid, Consuelo, who has been numbed by a life of poverty, and must suffer further by working for the wealthy wretches.
The film finally finds a direction as it begins to delve into the psyche of the family’s dazed and confused teenage son, Scooby, and his doomed existence. He is unable to connect with anyone in his family, each of them an overdone stereotype: the exasperated workaholic father, the concerned but vapid mother, the popular jock younger brother and the youngest brother, who is too sensitive and intelligent for his own good.
Scooby doesn’t have a clue where his life is going, but he knows that someday he would like to be a famous talk show host, like Conan O’Brien or “early Letterman.” When Scooby is approached by an amateur filmmaker, to be the subject of a documentary about suburban teenagers, he jumps at the chance.
When Scooby’s family is struck by tragedy, each character reaches an even deeper level of self-centeredness. This is one of the film’s better ideas, but it’s a case of too little, too late.
The characters and plot are too often hollow and unconvincing. Instead of a decent anthology film, which it might have been, Storytelling ends up feeling more like a clumsy combination of two incomplete halves.