Storytelling (2001) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

People will laugh at many different things.
I suppose the most sophisticated kid of wit involves a fresh, skewed, cleverly worded way to look at something familiar. Stand-up comics try to do this, with varying degrees of success. The Seinfeld and Simpsons TV shows are good at this. In this form of humor, there is no need for a pre-conceived positions or beliefs for the humor to work, especially if the comic can find some "truth" about human behavior to fuel his jokes. The English Patient debate on Seinfeld is funny whether you like The English Patient or not, because it investigates the nature of people's varying reactions to that movie. Framing the jokes in that context allows the show to captures the "truth" about the gap between people's perceptions of that film.


Selma Blair starts the film in a sex scene, and shows breasts in bed, and again getting dressed. Later, she shows breasts and buns in the sex scene with the professor. This is a very intense scene, which she later decides was rape, and it aroused the MPAA, even though the exposure is not at all explicit. They demanded cuts to avoid an NC-17, and Solondz, rather than cut the most important scene in this segment, simply obscured the action with an orange geometric shape for the rated version.
People will also laugh at remarks that are not at all funny or original if the remarks reinforce their existing beliefs and denigrate someone they feel superior to. Mort Sahl has eloquently recounted how his comic genius suddenly disappeared when Kennedy was elected. Post-1960, Sahl continued to do what he had always done, which was to use his arrogant intelligence to skewer the foibles and inconsistencies of people in power. When Ike was in power, the liberals canonized Sahl as the new Mark Twain. When Kennedy was in power, the liberals found that Sahl had lost his sense of humor. You could make the same point about Rush Limbaugh. Many people have told me that they find Limbaugh side-splittingly funny, although I've listened to hours and hours of his radio show and rarely heard anything resembling wit. Once in a while he comes up with a comic gem, but mostly he just speaks negatively about people in clichéd ways, using familiar clichéd terms, and the people who agree with him laugh (I guess).

Filmmaker Todd Solondz does the Mort Sahl or Rush Limbaugh kind of humor in the sense that your laughter will be determined by the extent to which you agree with his viewpoint. Solondz' "sense of humor" consists of denigrating people he feels superior to. I wouldn't characterize what he does as humor. So far as I can tell, Solondz has no sense of humor at all. He simply has an innate sense of his own superiority. When he is portraying other people negatively, which is pretty much all he does, this creates situations in which certain stereotypical characters are humiliated, and you may laugh if you share Solondz' contempt for those kinds of people, but he can't quite reach down and find the intrinsic truth in his characters and his situations. He paints them as broad, superficial cartoons, never acknowledging their complexity.

The first story (there are two completely unrelated films in the Storytelling package) is not really funny except in a bitterly ironic way (see Tuna's description below), but it does have some moments of great emotional intensity.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • The disk contains no features, but has full-screen and widescreen versions in both the R and unrated varieties.

The second story in Storytelling centers on a filmmaker very similar to Todd Solondz, who humiliates people by making a documentary about them. His co-worker tells him that he is contemptuous of his subjects, but he insists that he "loves them". Solondz flatters himself by having the screening of the characters' documentary result in raucous laughter. It is a sign of his complete lack of touch with reality that the people in that audience were guffawing away as if they were watching There's Something About Mary. Not likely. For one thing, it would be difficult to get much more than 30 people assembled in one place watching a Todd Solondz film, unless he starts to make them balanced and "real", instead of statements of his own superiority to middle class America. This film was shown in less than one theater per state, and was screened commercially about 4000 times altogether (200 theater weeks, at an estimated 20 shows per week per screen). It was seen by about 120,000 people, I suppose, so the 30 person rule holds up fairly well.

And I don't suppose there were gales of laughter drowning out the dialogue. 

Tuna's Thoughts

Storytelling (2001) is the third picture from Todd Solondz.

It is actually two stories. The first concerns a creative writing college class. Selma Blair is dating a fellow student with cerebral palsy. When he submits a heart-felt story about his handicap, the professor, Robert Wisdom, is brutal in his criticism. The two split up. Blair goes on the sleep with the professor, who ends up having more than a few kinks, and to get even, she writes a story about their encounter. When she reads it in class, the entire class attacks it as terrible fiction and nothing like real life, even though it was entirely true.

Episode two centers around a rich Jewish suburban family and a wanna-be documentary film maker who is featuring one of their three sons, a High School senior, in his project. Although the second story covers several controversial elements, such as racism, pressure to get into the perfect college, homosexuality, etc, I never found a clear message, or purpose to the story. Ebert saw it as a defense by Solondz of his in-your-face style of film making, and loved it at 3 1/2 stars. Berardinelli was much cooler at 2 stars, and felt that it was too apologetic. Both felt that the documentary film maker character was himself. I wish I could tell you what I thought it was about, but I am not at all sure.

While I enjoyed Solondz' first two efforts, Happiness, and Welcome to the Doll House, I just didn't see what he was getting at with this one, and the pace was languid. This is my sort of film, and I didn't much like this one. The proper grade is C.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: three stars. Ebert 3.5/4, Berardinelli 2/4, 4/5

  • General UK consensus: two and a half stars. Daily Mail 9/10,  Daily Telegraph 4/10, The Guardian 6/10, Evening Standard 7/10, The Mirror 4/10, BBC 3/5

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: a bomb - almost unreleaseable because of the content of the first story, it made less than a million in the domestic box. At 40 screens in the entire United States, it could not escape arthouse status


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C. Intelligent, but soulless, and with a sense of contemptuousness rather than true humor. (Tuna: also C)

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