Storytelling starts as it means to go on. A young woman, Vi (Selma Blair), is having sex with a man with cerebral palsy. When it's over, he complains that the sexual charge has left their relationship. "The kinkiness has gone," he remarks. "You've become kind." When he calls it off, she is distraught, confiding in her room-mate "I just thought Marcus would be different. I mean, he's got CP."
Todd Solondz's film, comprising two separate stories, is another dark and demented view of New Jersey suburbia. The first, entitled "Fiction" is set on a college campus where Marcus and Vi study creative writing. Their professor Mr Scott (Robert Wisdom), a Pulitzer prize-winning black author, is a cruel man whose contempt for his position manifests itself in the humiliation of his female students. One night he silently entices Vi to his apartment where she finds pictures of one of her fellow students naked and tied up. Rather than making for the door she repeats under her breath "Don't be racist" and submits to his grim demands.
The longer second segment follows Toby (Paul Giamatti), a frustrated middle-aged New Yorker, as he makes a fly-on-the-wall documentary about high school children in the aftermath of Columbine. He focuses on Scooby, a suitably directionless and vulnerable teenager, the son of an aspiring Jewish couple Marty and Fern Livingston (John Goodman and Julie Hagerty). Goodman is excellent – you can feel his buried rage as he desperately tries to set his son on the right track. The rumours at school are that Scooby is gay and he has some novel views on the persecution of the Jews. "If it weren't for Hitler, none of us would have been born," he announces at the dinner table, and is promptly sent to his room. Although Solondz is typically hard on his characters, there are no real villains. The closest we get to a bad guy is the Livingstons' youngest son, Mikey, a devious 11-year-old who exhorts his Dad to sack their put-upon maid because "she's lazy".
Storytelling never matches the fevered hideousness of Happiness, which isn't a bad thing. It's an altogether more subtle picture that lambasts stereotypes without recourse to caricature or heavy-handedness. There are occasional problems – a close-up of an empty straw wrapper dancing in the wind, an obvious send-up of Sam Mendes' American Beauty, is disruptive. But, on the whole, Solondz's portrait of suburban dysfunction is on the mark.
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