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Asking for It

If they teach the work of Todd Solondz someday, the lectures are bound to be rather short. To grasp the material without actually attending, just bone up on a little bargain-basement Freud, a whiff of primal therapy, and a sprinkle of Jerry Springer. The quizzes will be a breeze, and if you're called upon to speak, simply say, "There is unfairness in the world." You'll pass.

Were it not for his innate understanding of suburban agony, Solondz would be swiftly dismissed, but the Newark native knows how to claim his swatch of territory and render it engrossing, often with the emphasis on gross. Like Neil LaBute (Your Friends and Neighbors) and Larry Clark (Kids), the writer-director is desperate to point out that something is very wrong here in the real world. Fortunately, he also appraises his suburban condition with jaw-dropping edginess and an uncanny ability to wrench stunning performances from his casts.

Storytelling is sort of Solondz's third feature (if one mercifully omits his 1989 debut, Fear, Anxiety & Depression), and in many ways, it's his strongest effort to date. As with 1995's Welcome to the Dollhouse (actual working title: Faggots and Retards), he proves himself an expert in the mode of John Hughes gone to hell, and after the projection of adolescent angst that dumbed down the adults of the otherwise impressive Happiness, he seems comfortable here focusing mostly from the point of view of freaked-out kids. There's nothing terribly new or surprising on tap -- Ghost World already covered this miasma of moping -- but Solondz is a master of backing you into a queasy corner and tickling you until you puke, a dubious but noteworthy talent.

To achieve his goal this time, Solondz breaks Storytelling into two chapters: "Fiction" and "Non-Fiction." The first segment is a period piece set in a third-rate community college in 1985, where a Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American novelist named Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom) holds court over a class of wildly opinionated creative-writing students. The crux is that the punky blond Vi (Selma Blair) has grown weary of the drab sex and painfully mawkish prose of her cerebral-palsied boyfriend, Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), and so approaches her brooding professor for an "exotic" tryst. Naturally for Solondz, incredible unpleasantness ensues (some of it ridiculously censored), and we're invited to flinch or guffaw as we please.

"Non-Fiction," if less successful overall, is much more ambitious, echoing the domestic madness of Dollhouse but channeling its confusion through the present-day torpor of a teenage dullard named Scooby (Mark Webber). After a restroom encounter with a pathetic documentarian and shoe salesman named Toby (Paul Giamatti), Scooby -- whose only ambition is to become a famous talk-show host -- volunteers himself and his extremely unhappy family (John Goodman, Julie Hagerty, Noah Fleiss, Jonathan Osser) to be the subjects of Toby's meandering exposé on... something or other. Again, unpleasantness ensues, but not before we catch countless darkly satiric details, such as the Machiavellian youngest son, Mikey (Osser), grilling the Latina housekeeper, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros), with "innocent" questions such as, "Even though you're poor, don't you have any hobbies or interests?" Things get even uglier when Scooby informs his parents that, if it weren't for Hitler, they'd never have met each other in America and their children would never have been born.

Solondz clearly wants to up the ante of his previous films, with the kidnapping of Dollhouse leading to the pederasty, rape, and murder of Happiness to more rape and murder in Storytelling. What's finally clear, however, is that his characters -- the clichéd blond, the moronic slacker, the pompous patriarch -- are all asking for it. Despite the slight irony of the "Fiction" and "Non-Fiction" titles, Solondz isn't working with irony at all. His singular game plan is to dangle profoundly obnoxious caricatures before us, then punish them mercilessly for their stupidity, which is amusing enough if you're in the mood for that sort of thing.

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Gregory Weinkauf

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