If Storytelling is a lesson in self-criticism, it functions more like a navel-gazing excuse than an apology. Like Happiness, it’s a monomaniacal tirade crawling with hapless people whom we can hold ourselves above and laugh at with disdain. Solondz, the master manipulator, turns around and creates miserable situations to make these wretched characters seem sympathetic while admonishing us for sneering at them.
"You’ve become kind," says Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick of Kids), a college kid stricken with cerebral palsy, complaining to his girlfriend, Vi (Selma Blair), in the first section of the film, titled "Fiction." After muddling through bad sex, he begs Vi to read his horrible short story. Cut to their creative writing class, where their black, Pulitzer Prize-winning professor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), rips the self-pitying tale to shreds. Solondz has a legitimate point to make about the absurdities of political correctness, as the students praise his story by comparing it to the work of other disabled writers. (They use John Updike as an example. He suffers from psoriasis.) The students, obvious stand-ins for Solondz’s critics, come across as ultra-analytical, yet sheltered, uttering catch-phrases in place of real thought (one girl complains that the story is "too earnest").
After Marcus dumps Vi, she stumbles into her brooding teacher at a bar. The pair have brutal anal sex while Scott forces her to scream obscene racial epithets. (The scene is blocked by a floating red rectangle to sidestep and ridicule the ratings board.) Is Mr. Scott acting out Vi's perverse fantasy of submission while he acts out his own revenge fantasies against white society? When Vi turns the encounter into a story, the scornful class deems it too clichéd to be authentic. Vi blurts out, "But it happened!" and Mr. Scott counters with, "Once you start writing, it all becomes fiction."
The theme of both sections of the movie involves how stories distort truth and how art is often misjudged. The rambling second half, called "Nonfiction," is more complex because the characters aren’t as flat and obvious. Toby, an underachieving documentarian (Mike Schank as Solondz’s alter-ego) plans to make a film about the pressures of a modern American high school. He follows Scooby (Mark Webber), a perpetually stoned loser who dreams of becoming Conan O’Brien’s sidekick, and his shrill, vulgar caricature of an upper-class Jewish family (obnoxious John Goodman, nervous Julie Hagarty, along with their spoiled monster of a son played by Jonathan Osser, who literally hypnotizes the father).
Toby’s editor (Franka Potente of Run, Lola, Run) suspects that he’s using these pathetic suburbanites for cheap laughs, but the mere act of filming turns them into melodrama. Solondz isn’t filming a documentary, though he wants us to find the same philosophical significance in his cruel fiction, which borders on exploitation. He rationalizes his taste for shock tactics and pokes fun at critically lauded films such as American Beauty, claiming directors who pretend to render the emptiness of life are just as fake as those who ignore it. What separates his stories from theirs?