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The misanthropy that germinated in writer-director Todd Solondz’s breakthrough feature, Welcome to the Dollhouse, and flowered in his follow-up, Happiness, turns to withered stalks in Storytelling. Composed of two thematically related short films, “Fiction” and “Non-Fiction,” Solondz’s latest effort should be shunned by all but the flintiest-hearted moviegoers.
Enemies of political correctness might want to reconsider their position after sitting through “Fiction,” a half-hour sketch set in and around a college creative-writing workshop. Classmates Vi (Selma Blair) and her lover Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick) are introduced having sex, after which Marcus, his face and hand contorted by cerebral palsy, ponders revising the ending of his latest autobiographical literary effort. When he reads this chunk of self-pitying swill to his softheaded peers, he receives kudos for his candor, but his forbidding professor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), a black Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, accurately deems it “a piece of shit.”
Unjustly blaming his public humiliation on Vi, Marcus dumps her, whereupon she picks up Scott in a bar. He takes her home, commands her to strip, and engages in rear-entry sex with her (the precise act is coyly obscured by a scarlet matte) while forcing her to bellow “Nigger, fuck me hard!” Subsequently, Vi transparently and vengefully fictionalizes this encounter, only to be met with hostility by her classmates, who brand the story unconvincing, racist, and obscene, inspiring her wounded protest, “But it really happened!”
Although viewers who have participated in creative-writing workshops will recognize Solondz’s spot-on depiction of their insufferable group dynamics, the bulk of “Fiction” is fatuously transgressive. The filmmaker’s unbridled disdain for his characters betrays a childishly perverse impulse to offend. No doubt he intends his corrosive mockery of physical disability, racial friction, and sexual exploitation to unleash spectators from the stranglehold of good taste, but, to judge by the brays of contemptuous laughter at the press screening, the effect is more dehumanizing than liberating.
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Longer but less tightly structured, “Non-Fiction” again finds Solondz callously ripping wings from mortal flies. Manhattanite Toby (Paul Giamatti), a gormless would-be filmmaker, sets out to shoot a documentary about a representative contemporary suburban teenager. He chooses Scooby (Mark Webber), a stoned, inarticulate misfit whose sole ambition is to become a television talk-show host. Also participating in the project is Scooby’s dysfunctional family: his short-tempered, whalelike father (John Goodman); his anxious, rail-thin mother (Julie Hagerty); and their other spawn, doltish jock Brady (Noah Fleiss) and wiseass Mikey (Jonathan Osser), a Machiavellian tyke who victimizes Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros), the household’s harried maid.
Though Solondz packs this vignette with more characters and plot lines than he can develop in 43 minutes, this does not prevent him from wallowing in more gratuitous cruelty, particularly in the case of the lumbering, bovine Consuelo, whose convict son has just been executed. Other targets of scorn include unsuccessful artists, gay teens, clueless parents, and, above all, suburbia, a subject worn thin decades before Solondz adopted it as his signature theme.
Viewing mankind through a dark lens to expose human failings is an essential technique for satirists such as Swift, Bunuel, and Sturges. But Solondz isn’t a satirist; he’s a cine-sadist, creating oblivious, grotesque creatures so he can revel in their debasement. Apart from the bromidic observation that using real-life experiences as the basis for creating artistic narratives is a form of exploitation, Storytelling has no aim other than encouraging us to chortle at the discomfiture and anguish of others.
After viewing a rough assembly of his documentary, Toby’s editor (Franka Potente) rightly complains that the filmmaker’s goal appears to be demonstrating “how superior you are to your subject.” One can’t help wondering whether this pointed observation expresses Solondz’s dim awareness of his own artistic blind spot—or whether he’s too obtuse to realize that she’s pinpointed precisely what makes watching Storytelling such a rank experience.
Shamelessly cribbing its premise from the 1948 neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief, Chinese filmmaker Wang Xiaoshuai’s Beijing Bicycle is a pale imitation of Vittorio De Sica’s somber portrait of impoverished postwar Italy. Repetitious, contrived, and, at just under two hours, excessively drawn out, Beijing Bicycle makes humanist realism seem nearly as unrewarding as Solondz’s cartoonish malevolence.
Arriving in Beijing from his native village, unworldly teenager Guei (Cui Lin) takes a job as a delivery boy. His low-paying employers equip him with a fancy mountain bike that will become his possession after he’s earned 600 yuan. Just as the hardworking youth is about to achieve his goal, the bicycle is stolen. Xiaoshuai then introduces a second protagonist, 17-year-old Jian (Li Bin), a frustrated adolescent whose father has promised to purchase him a bicycle. When unforeseen circumstances prevent the fulfillment of this pledge, Jian steals a cache of family money and buys Guei’s purloined mountain bike at a flea market, thereby impressing his classmates and attracting a new girlfriend.
Guei haunts the streets of Beijing, a city of bicycles, and implausibly manages to locate the vehicle, which he shrewdly marked for identification. He recovers the bike, but soon Jian makes off with it. Following a series of such larcenous exchanges, the young men strike a compromise, agreeing to use the bicycle on alternate days, though in a rather abrupt, arbitrary ending, one emerges with exclusive possession.
Xiaoshuai lards this ping-ponging narrative with time-killing distractions: scenic views of Beijing, protracted sequences of Jian’s pals performing bike stunts, arty slow-motion passages, and an extraneous subplot involving an enigmatic girl with red shoes. Despite persuasive performances by its young cast, Beijing Bicycle is oddly dry and unaffecting, a skimpy, plodding tale that would have been more effective at half its length. CP