STORYTELLING witten and directed by Todd Solondz, produced by Ted Hope and Christine Vachon , with Selma Blair, Robert Wisdom, Paul Giamatti, John Goodman and Julie Haggerty. 87 minutes. A Good Machine production. A Fine Line release through Alliance-Atlantis. Opens Friday (February 15). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 76. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Todd Solondz's stunning achievement in his 1998 feature, Happiness, was his success at presenting an astonishingly unpleasant group of characters while remaining utterly sympathetic to them. He didn't require us to like them, but he did demand that we understand them. It takes unbelievable nerve to create a sympathetic pedophile, as Dylan Baker did in that film.
Looking at his debut, Welcome To The Dollhouse, and noticing the young Heather Matarazzo's startling resemblance to the director adds some genuinely uncomfortable levels of meaning to an already discomfitting film.
His latest, Storytelling, gives free rein to Solondz's self-loathing misanthropy.
It was originally a three-parter, but the third story, which involved Dawson Creek's James Van Der Beek and some graphic gay sex scenes, disappeared somewhere between the shooting and the film's premiere at Cannes last year.
The two surviving parts are Fiction, with Selma Blair as a student who has a one-night stand with her writing professor and then writes a story about it, and Non-Fiction, with Paul Giamatti as a down-and-out filmmaker who decides to make a documentary about a typical American teen as a way of reviving his career.
Both Blair's and Giamatti's characters are denounced for their work in terms noticeably similar to some of the criticisms levelled at Solondz and his films.
What's striking about Storytellers is the performances. Solondz, a great actors' director, gets remarkable work from Blair, Giamatti and several of the supporting players, including John Goodman, Julie Hagerty and Lupe Ontiveros.
What's not enjoyable or even interesting is the whining tone. It makes me want to say, "Todd, you've had three films premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. You've won awards. It's kind of petty to harp on every slight you've ever received from people who, by your lights, lack your exquisite sensibility and belief in artistic truth.
"Get over it."