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In this thoroughly disappointing follow-up to his previous films Welcome to the Dollhouse and the brilliant Happiness, writer-director Todd Solondz attempts to answer his critics by proving them right with an empty and sophomoric collection of "shocking" cruelties. Storytelling aspires to offer tantalizing comment on the nature of narrative with two short films. The first, Fiction, stars Selma Blair as a cynical writing student looking for fresh perspective through a sexual relationship with a Cerebral Palsy-affected fellow student (Leo Fitzpatrick), but ultimately finding inspiration following a degrading tryst with her exploitative professor (Robert Wisdom). During the final scene in this segment, Solondz's characters parrot critics of the director's earlier work, referring to Blair's writing as "mean-spirited," "affected" and asserting, "by using taboo language you were trying to shock us about the hollowness of your characters." Guilty on all accounts, as far as Storytelling is concerned. Where Fiction, the shorter of the two stories, shows a writer trying to recast her disturbing reality as fiction, the second story, Nonfiction, examines how people prefer to fictionalize their realities rather than face what's true. Both ideas could be provocative, and Solondz mercilessly throws tragedies and humiliations at his characters to keep them on their toes. But where this approach was well integrated into moving narratives in his two previous films, in Storytelling Solondz's freakshow of pain comes off as forced and gratuitous. His error, primarily, is sacrificing character for concept. Both Welcome to the Dollhouse and Happiness were anchored by deeply empathetic people whose endurance of pain and isolation was as genuine as their (often misguided) yearning for relief. In Storytelling, all of the characters are either blank slates or unsketched caricatures, and there's little investment in spending time with this assortment of hollow sadsacks who only aspire to the most superficial ends. However, Storytelling is not totally without merit. Paul Giamatti, who stars in Nonfiction as a hopeless documentarian, is always fun to watch, and this segment also features the film's best scene, as precocious Jonathan Osser mercilessly interrogates his family's grieving housekeeper (Lupe Ontiveros), echoing the sharpness and harsh sting of purpose found in Solondz's earlier films but overall lacking here. New Line presents Storytelling on one disc featuring both the R-rated theatrical cut and an unrated director's cut (to earn an R, Solondz obscured a substantial section of the screen during the Blair-Wisdom sex scene; the unrated version shows all), and with each available in anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) or full-screen (1.33:1). Audio is in Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby 2.0 Surround. Trailer, snap-case.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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