I don’t know what you’ve heard about this one, but I keep hearing that it’s a pile of shit. That Todd Solondz has gone from a visionary manipulator of our deepest taboos and human flaws, to some kind of shock value asshole just trying to get a rise out of people. That this is just a big fuck you to the audience with no sense of humanity and etc. etc.
Well none of that is true. I’m not gonna say this is a perfect movie. It feels a little short (apparently they cut out one of three stories, and that seems like it mighta been a mistake). But if it weren’t for all the shit I heard from contrarians waiting to pounce on their former hero, I would say that anybody who liked HAPPINESS would like this one too. Because it’s the same kind of feel – a deep probing of the things that make individuals the most uncomfortable. It’s not as sad as HAPPINESS but it has that same feeling that it is daring you to laugh. Come on motherfucker. Laugh at this. I fucking dare you. Remember, you’re in public here. Do you have the balls to let everyone else in this room know that you think that’s funny?
What I like about this movie is that it brings up interesting questions and then refuses to answer them for you. For example there is a scene in a college creative Writing class where a student with cerebral palsy reads a short story about himself. The rest of the class tries to be very supportive, comparing his work to Faulkner, praising his choice of words, listing famous Writers that had disabilities. One frankly honest student, half-way apologetically, bashes the story as trite and poorly written. And the Pulitzer Prize winning professor says, “She’s right. The story is a piece of shit.”
What an asshole, right? But then he’s being honest. And the rest of the class aren’t, not with their classmate and not with themselves. I mean, which one is worse? Being dishonest, or being an asshole? I really don’t know and I don’t think Solondz does either. But I think most people don’t even want to ask the question, let alone answer it.
And by the way I would like to dedicate that first portion of the movie to my old wednesday night creative writing class and say, see this you assholes? This is you. Anybody who has ever been in a Writing class will recognize this type of holier than thou dissection of somebody else’s words.
The movie is full of those kind of questions, many of them aimed at the filmatist himself and at us, the Cinema viewing type audience. The second of the two stories is about a loser filmatist named Toby making a documentary about a teenage stoner and his family and “the college admissions process in post-Columbine America.” The story is loaded with questions: at what point does a documentary, or a fictional movie for that matter, exploit its subjects, and make fun of their lives? At one point Lola from RUN LOLA RUN questions Toby’s motives. Isn’t he making fun of this family? He says no, he really likes this family. He loves this family. She is skeptical.
Later Lola starts to like where the documentary is going, as it gets more serious, and now it seems Toby thinks she’s loving the characters too much and he asks, “Don’t you think it’s funny, though?” I think Mr. Solondz is asking these same questions.
Things don’t end well in Toby’s documentary, and it’s easy to interpret as an attack on documentaries. But just to confuse things a little, Solondz casts Mike Schank, our friendly, brain dead guitarist friend from the great AMERICAN MOVIE, as the cameraman. What does this mean? That documentaries exploit the lives of their subjects, but that AMERICAN MOVIE is one exception? Or is Mike’s presence supposed to remind us of that movie as one example of exploitation? And if so, isn’t having him in this movie in order to criticize his other movie another form of exploitation?
And if it’s cruel for people to be laughing at Toby’s movie AMERICAN SCOOBY, isn’t it cruel for us to be laughing at STORYTELLING, which is fictional but true to its characters? Does laughter always have a victim?
Also, to those who say that the characters in HAPPINESS are more sympathetic, I gotta disagree. Toby is heavily flawed, but he’s not a bad person. Lola doesn’t ever do anything wrong. Selma Blair is naive but she’s a more sympathetic victim than that put upon gal in HAPPINESS. And I think Consuelo’s flaws are easier to relate to than the pedophile psychologist who everyone seems to consider the most likable characters in HAPPINESS. (How come motherfuckers don’t give Michael Jackson the same leeway, by the way? I mean that dude can DANCE!) Scooby’s brother is a character you don’t see much in movies – he’s your usual fag-hating football playing oaf, but he tries in his own way to accept his brother being gay. And Scooby himself is a lazy stoner but part of his brain is working and he has a cynicism and pain that the audience should be able to sympathize with.
I mean the only through and through evil character is the little brother, and I’m gonna fuckin smack that kid up the head if he tries that hypnotism shit with me. God damn it go to your room. He might be the best villain of the year.
In conclusion, Todd Solondz may be a whiny dude with huge glasses but he sure can make a fuckin movie, in my opinion.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.