This was my reaction to Todd Solondz's previous feature Happiness: It was well-written, well-directed, well-acted... and I didn't like it. In interviews, Solondz repeatedly insists that he does have sympathy for his characters – wretched losers behaving wretchedly and having wretched things happen to them – but he's so defensive that there's a bit of "he doth protest too much" about him. I almost think Solondz is self-aware enough to recognize this, and that Storytelling is a case of the filmmaker questioning his own work. But in the end, he lets himself off the hook and points the finger at his audience instead.
The film is divided into two separate stories: the first, "Fiction", is about college student Vi (Selma Blair) in a writing class; the second, "Nonfiction", is about documentarian Toby (Paul Giamatti) filming an unhappy suburban family, in particular deadbeat teenager Scooby (Mark Webber). Both the student and the documentarian are clear stand-ins for Solondz: Giamatti even looks and talks like the director. And they spend a lot of time defending their exploitative work – a thinly veiled metaphor for Solondz's own experiences.
I don't know whether to respect this guy for examining why the cruelty in his films elicits laughter from his fans, or to slap him for believing his films are so important. At least Storytelling acknowledges its audience's insularity: Solondz knows the folks who will see this film are familiar with Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse (which I did like), as well as with Chris Smith's documentary American Movie, which tracked misguided loser Mark Borchardt as he struggled to raise cash for his dream film. Toby's documentary ("American Scooby", ha ha) is an obvious spoof – Solondz even cast Borchardt's burnout buddy Mike Schank as Toby's cameraman – and the public's reaction is similarly derisive, which bothers Solondz as it should bother us all.
I can appreciate this film for having an actual point (unlike Happiness), but I don't like how Solondz deflects his complicity in today's mean-spirited independent cinema by suggesting that it's all the audience's fault. His only true self-criticism in this film may be found in his two alter egos' lack of talent.
I still think Storytelling was well-written, well-directed, and well-acted. And I didn't like it.