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Overall Rating

Awesome: 10%
Worth A Look60%
Average: 22%
Pretty Bad: 2%
Total Crap: 6%

5 reviews, 20 user ratings

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by Andrew Howe

"Solondz Lite"
3 stars

Todd Solondz has a lot to say about learning lessons the hard way, but if his latest film is any indication he said it all in Happiness and Welcome to the Dollhouse. He’s traded his scalpel for a sledgehammer, chaining his characters to the millstone of the message, and the result is an insubstantial, unfocussed satire that would have earned an average grade if we didn’t know he was capable of so much more.

Solondz takes a leaf out of Jim Jarmush’s book by dividing the film into two sections, but Storytelling’s stories are unconnected in anything other than a thematic sense. “Fiction” casts an appraising eye over a university student’s sexual encounter with her creative writing professor, while “Non-fiction” charts a documentary filmmaker’s efforts to chronicle teenage angst via a dopey stoner named Scooby. He should have labelled them “First Draft” and “Regression” - the multi-layered narrative that underpinned Happiness is nowhere to be seen (which isn’t surprising, given the 87 minute running time), leaving us with a film that plays like a stepping stone to the greatness he’s already achieved.

“Fiction” comes thundering out of the gates in typical Solondz style - a scene in a writing workshop is hilarious, drenched in his trademark cutting dialogue, while Selma Blair and Robert Wisdom remind us of his talent for bringing out the best in his performers. Unfortunately things go off the rails shortly afterwards, as the narrative sinks into a graphic depiction of female degradation for reasons which are appropriately obscure (it’s worth noting that Australia has received an unedited print – Solondz’s contractual obligation to achieve a US R rating saw him block out the business end of the sex scene with a digitally inserted red box).

Anyone who has seen Happiness will know that Solondz is an unapologetic confrontationalist, but in that film there was a method to his madness. Certain scenes were included for no better reason than to make us squirm, but it was obvious from the outset we weren’t supposed to be taking it entirely seriously, and Solondz’s script betrayed a certain compassion for the lost and misguided souls that populated the film’s barren urban landscape. In “Fiction”, however, Solondz is confronting for the sake of being confronting – there’s nothing to be gained from this disturbing mess, apart from the knowledge that the young and impressionable are often abused by the old and embittered, who prefer dragging others down with them to suffering in solitude (Solondz is on the record as saying he’s examining the concept of exploitation, which is little more than an attempt to excuse his crimes by summoning the spectre of artistic intent).

In “Non-fiction” Solondz does an abrupt about-face – it’s not particularly confronting, but it’s not particularly interesting either. He takes his exploitation theme and runs with it to the bitter end, as filmmaker Toby (Paul Giamatti) uses his good intentions to turn the affable Scooby (Mark Webber) into a laughing stock, with the remaining screen time devoted to the lives of Scooby’s nearest and dearest.

Despite fine performances from Giamatti and Webber the Toby/Scooby plot thread is derivative and uninspired (parodying earnest documentaries about idiots is hardly cutting-edge scriptwriting, especially when all you end up with is an earnest documentary about idiots), but the “dysfunctional family” subplot pays the required dividends. John Goodman is superb as Scooby’s emotionally unstable old man (it’s a retread of his performance in The Big Lebowski, which was certainly deserving of an encore), and Jonathan Osser is supremely unnerving as a smarmy little bastard who appears to have stepped off the set of Village of the Damned.

Unfortunately, none of it amounts to anything – Solondz is so intent on hammering home his message that he forgets to make it entertaining, leaving us with a laboured and fragmented work that’s empty of insight and packed with obvious swipes at easy targets. If this was his debut feature I’d pronounce it an interesting failure, but as it stands I have no option but to label it a gross misstep from a man who should know better. Nobody can take away his past achievements, but if he doesn’t learn a few lessons of his own that might be all he has left.

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originally posted: 05/15/02 17:06:57
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User Comments

5/30/09 Josie Cotton is a goddess A deadpan satire so black that you can develop film in it. 5 stars
4/29/09 brian MyGreenBed ironically gets it exactly wrong; this makes fun of self-hating suburban whites. 4 stars
9/25/06 Bitchflaps Better than Happiness in that the humour seeks make a point, rather than merely shock 4 stars
1/01/06 Indrid Cold The insightful, pitch-black humor is great, but it doesn't quite add up to a great movie. 4 stars
12/11/05 malcolm kinda captivating but ultimately left me thinking 'why?' 3 stars
12/02/05 Jennifer S. This movie was decent, but would liked to have seen the deleted Van Der Beek part 3 stars
6/23/04 tokio dixx super!!!! 5 stars
6/05/04 MyGreenBed Trying desperately to shock for the sake of shocking. For self-hating suburban whites only. 1 stars
2/10/04 john smith interesting how the writer-producer joins the rest of the holocaust deniers. 1 stars
9/21/03 y2mckay Just well-written enough to remain interesting, when not dragged down by pretentiousness. 3 stars
5/26/03 Danny Marchese a pathetic film that comes to a careening halt after sexy selma's sex scene is done 1 stars
3/21/03 Jack Sommersby Flawed but endlessly fascinating. Good for repeat viewings. 4 stars
11/16/02 Cheryl White Woman Lover Of Black Men I am a white woman who has often dreamed the see between selma blair and the black stud 5 stars
8/19/02 Caiphn Tellurium, you tard. 3 stars
7/19/02 spyguy2 If you liked "Happiness" you are going to love this...totally engrossing and twisted. 5 stars
2/21/02 Thor-Leo I loved "Dollhouse" and "Happiness" but this one doesn't come near either one. 2 stars
2/15/02 JB HAPPINESS better/same director. Also V. Der Beek is not in this movie. 3 stars
2/14/02 Dave ( Typical Solondz brilliance, but cuts were a mistake 4 stars
2/13/02 Justin Decent, but nowhere near "Happiness" 4 stars
12/08/01 Steven Wilson Dark, funny, slightly sick and brilliant! 5 stars
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  25-Jan-2002 (R)


  09-May-2002 (M)

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