Welcome to the Suburbs

Todd Solondz’s Storytelling only tells half the story; I Am Sam is manipulative as hell, but sweet.

Todd Solondz is the bad-vibe bard of the north New Jersey suburbs, where his vinegary satire Storytelling (Fine Line) unfolds against a landscape of garishly large houses (squashed together, their yards given up for the sake of their formidable façades), overly entitled white people, and a simmering underclass. The movie is less a rounded narrative than a pair of suggestive—and unresolved—exercises. Solondz uses this setting he knows (and loathes) for a brusque meditation on the ways in which people concoct stories to try to make sense of their spiritually impoverished lives. In the first episode, “Fiction,” a college girl turns a nightmarish interracial sexual encounter into a short story that gets the details right but misses the big picture; in the second, “Nonfiction,” a documentary filmmaker—he wants to depict the crushing banality of suburban culture—gets the big picture more or less but misses the humanizing details, along with the real (racial) story. If my summation sounds abstract, well—the movie is clinical. But it also has a punker’s angry concision. Solondz doesn’t always know what he wants to say, but he sure as hell wants to get in your face while he says it.

“Fiction,” the shorter of the two episodes, begins abrasively and gets more outrageous as it goes along. Vi (Selma Blair), a skinny, very white (her hair is dyed blond with a streak of pink) college girl, is having sex with her boyfriend, Marcus (Leo Fitzpatrick), who turns out to have cerebral palsy. He wants to read to her the rewrite of his latest short story, but she says she’d rather hear it in their writing class—where it proves to be a gruesomely sentimental account of how her esteem for him in bed has made him feel like a “cerebral person.” The story is brutally dismissed by the brooding, African-American professor, Mr. Scott (Robert Wisdom), who later makes Vi a participant in his own alienated sexual fantasy (think Mandingo). “Fiction” winds up with Vi reading the story of what happened between them from her perspective—an account that proves to be as angry, melodramatic, and incomplete as the two sexual fantasies that have preceded it. 

Solondz evidently eliminated a lot of characters (and name actors) from this first section, and what’s left has a stinging compression. It’s masterfully elided, and there isn’t a moment when you don’t want to yelp at the “incorrectness” of it all—from the palsied Marcus’ confidence in his newfound “cerebral” prowess to his various classmates’ ruminations on novelists with handicaps (“Updike has psoriasis!”) to the black professor’s impulse to knock his rival alien down about fifty pegs. And we’re not even talking about the big interracial sex scene, in which Solondz—contractually obligated to deliver an R-rated movie but mulishly determined to keep every frame of the coupling—has opted for a giant red square superimposed over Wisdoms’ thrusting buttocks: a middle finger to the MPAA. 

If you can believe it, “Nonfiction” is even more confrontational, but it’s nowhere near as finely tuned. It’s an honorable kind of failure, a case of a director purposefully tackling his own limitations—and not being able to transcend them. The episode has two interwoven strands. The first concerns Toby (Paul Giamatti), a perennial loser/schlub who decides to make a documentary feature about a suburban family on the threshold of the new millennium. The second follows the family itself—the Livingstons (John Goodman and Julie Hagerty) and their zombified teen-age son Scooby (Mark Webber), who smokes a lot of dope, allows himself to be fellated by a gay friend, and dreams only of being a talk-show host like Conan O’Brien (who shows up in a dope fantasy). Often on the periphery of the frame is the Livingstons’ Salvadoran maid, Consuelo (Lupe Ontiveros), who will ultimately—and unexpectedly—play a decisive part in the story.

Solondz has an interesting, potentially useful kind of paranoia—it makes him struggle to stay a step ahead of his critics. He has heard the charge that he hates his characters; and even if he’s unable to correct for it entirely—his memory of suburbanites as oppressive and loveless is what energizes his work—he has found a way to acknowledge that view within the narrative. The key scenes here are the ones in which Toby’s editor (Run Lola Run’s Franka Potente, unrecognizable) watches the Livingston footage and wonders aloud whether Toby is turning them into caricatures of themselves. She’s the Conscience of the Documentary. “I love them,” protests Toby, lamely, clearly sensing that his project is riddled with contempt—and that its best hope for financial success is to make the audience laugh nonstop at the Livingstons and their fuzzy-headed oldest son. Solondz also takes a poke at the swirling-paper mysticism of that other, smugly superior critique of suburbia, American Beauty.

The debate about “subjects” versus “objects of fun” is resonant: It adds to Storytelling a smart, at times exhilarating note of self-criticism. The problem is that Solondz’s own depiction of the Livingstons isn’t that much more nuanced or filled-in than Toby’s. He certainly treats them as surreal objects: Goodman is enormously obese and seething with self-righteousness; Hagerty is twig-thin, twittery, and elaborately coiffed, her stylish blouse emblazoned with Hebrew letters. (How’s that for economy—expensively bad taste and Jewishness in one shot!) My guess is that it’s so agonizing for Solondz to revisit what was clearly a nightmarish upbringing that there’s no possibility of him softening his gaze. The director’s alter ego seems to be Mikey (Jonathan Osser), the little kid who asks a lot of brilliant, pointed questions but not as a way of achieving empathy—as a way of gaining a hold over people. (He’s also an amateur hypnotist.) It’s through Mikey’s eyes that the audience has its only straight-on view of Consuelo, who turns out to be as angry and opaque as Mr. Scott.

I’m not going to spoil the ending of Storytelling, although in some ways that would be a compassionate gesture. It’s a flip shocker—a middle-finger at everyone, including the audience. But the real trouble is that it hasn’t been prepared for in human terms. I don’t know whether Solondz refuses to sympathize with Consuelo (or, for that matter, Mr. Scott) because he doesn’t want to condescend to them with cheap sentimentality or because he’s afraid of the Dark Others himself. But he ought to resolve his feelings before he makes another movie with black or Hispanic characters. The terror of avenging minorities becomes the most vivid aspect of Storytelling—and the one that makes you think Solondz is telling only half the story.

On the opposite end of the emotional (and movie-making) spectrum is Jessie Nelson’s I Am Sam (New Line), in which a social and economic outcast has so much love in him that he transforms the whole unfeeling white yuppie world. The hero is Sam (Sean Penn), who has the intellect of a 7-year-old but the capacious heart of [Your Favorite Saint’s Name Here]. It turns out that he has fathered a child by a homeless woman, who dashes off so quickly after she gives birth that we barely see her face; Sam names the baby Lucy for a song by his beloved Beatles. And she is diamonds.

It takes him a while to get the hang of child care, but with the help of a reclusive but kindly neighbor (Dianne Wiest), his bosses at Starbuck’s, and a Greek chorus of mentally disabled buddies, he raises a beautiful, loving little girl (Dakota Fanning), to whom he reads Green Eggs and Ham—which is just at his level. They have many blissful dinners at IHOP; but right around the time her reading level surpasses his, the state swoops down and puts Lucy in foster care. Through a series of comic/sentimental contrivances, Sam ends up being represented in his custody battle by a rich, brittle whirlwind of an attorney named Rita (Michele Pfeiffer), as in lovely meter maid. She’s good—but can the state see past its (not illegitimate) concerns and recognize that sometimes, in the words of John and Paul (the Beatles, not the Apostles), all you need is love?

This movie has received some of the most derisive reviews I’ve ever read, and I agree with many of the criticisms. Sam is too one-dimensionally dear, that damn swooshy camera works stridently to break down your defenses, and the melodrama has a tinge of Kramer vs. Kramer misogyny. On one level, I Am Sam is a crock, but on another, more vital one, it’s very, very sweet—a simple love poem that does the job as surely as “Here Comes the Sun,” another Beatles song (by George) that the movie invokes. It certainly would take a much tougher man than I to sit through it without weeping uncontrollably.

There are two relationships at the film’s center—the first poignant, the second screwball-comic. Both work beautifully. Penn gets so deep inside this loving simpleton that almost every word he utters to his daughter sounds like a tender lyric, something from “Two of Us” or “Across the Universe.” I don’t know how such a sour guy can find it in himself to be so fearlessly rhapsodic, but that’s one of the mysteries of acting—and Penn is one of the greatest actors alive. Dakota Fanning is an otherworldly gorgeous child, and she gets on Penn’s wavelength and holds up her end of the love duets without missing a beat. Pfeiffer is in a different key: Her over-caffeinated rhythms (she’s a Tab drinker after my own heart) make it impossible at first for Sam even to penetrate her consciousness, and her exasperated double takes in the face of his plodding literal-mindedness are some of the funniest moments in a movie all year. The rest of the actors (including Richard Schiff and a Picture-of-Dorian-Gray lovely Mary Steenburgen) hit singing notes of their own.

I Am Sam is manipulative as hell; it’s too one-dimensional to be a masterpiece. It’s also possible that fathers of wonderful little girls named Lucy who frequently regard themselves as “retards” need to be cut some slack here. (I am all of the above.) Just don’t believe the anti-hype. There are lots of reasons to have a good cry these days—here’s a nice, warm place to get squeezed.