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Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2003

Genius takes a breather

Full Frontal

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Running time: 101 minutes
Language: English
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Back in 1996, Steven Soderbergh was facing the nadir of his career. After the phenomenal success of his indie debut, "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," his bigger-budgeted films like "Kafka" and "Underneath" had tanked big-time. With his future as a major director dissolving before his eyes, Soderbergh felt free enough not to give a damn about what anybody thought anymore and cranked out an insane piece of freestyle filmmaking called "Schizopolis."

News photo
Blair Underwood and Julia Roberts in "Full Frontal"

A mere six years later, Soderbergh found himself at the other end of the spectrum, one of Hollywood's hottest properties after the success of "Out of Sight," "Erin Brokovich" and "Traffic." Ironically enough, success bought him the same freedom as failure; the chance to pursue a pet project without worrying whether it would sell. Of course, this time around he had friends like Julia Roberts who were willing to indulge his whims. This guaranteed that even a film shot through a cardboard tube filled with Vaseline would find a larger audience than "Schizopolis."

Soderbergh didn't use the cardboard tube for "Full Frontal," but he did shoot it on DV with a bunch of Dogma '95-like rules for his actors -- no trailers, no personal assistants or catering on set, no hair or makeup staff, etc. The result, while leaving us with a refreshingly short ending-credits roll, is actually far less experimental and edgy than "Schizopolis," and more like a vintage Robert Altman film: large ensemble cast, layered storylines and dialogue, and a sharp, cynical look at the entertainment biz in its Los Angeles lair.

Working with writer Coleman Hough, Soderbergh came up with the idea of doing nine 10-minute scenes, each involving primarily two actors, ideally shot in one take. Improvisation was encouraged, as was "having fun," and the entire project wrapped for a mere $2 million in 18 days. As one might expect there are some ragged edges on display here, and the film lacks the sleek, controlled look and pace of recent Soderbergh works such as "Solaris" or "Ocean's 11." But that seems to have been the point; this is the anti-"Ocean's 11," a small, nimble film that explores the joys of performance and doesn't sweat the technical stuff.

The film follows about six characters over the course of one long day in L.A. The thread holding their separate stories together is that all have been invited to a party being given by Gus (David Duchovny), an upper-level Hollywood player. Or, at least, that's what they think: Some have only been invited by his assistant -- an important distinction in Hollywood's pecking order.

Receiving personal invitations are film stars Catherine (Julia Roberts) and Nicholas (Blair Underwood), who are also appearing in a film within the film called "Exposed," in which Catherine plays a journalist named Francesca who may be getting romantically involved with movie star Calvin, played by Nicholas. Soderbergh takes this postmodern play even further, with a film within the film within the film, in which Calvin plays the black "second fiddle" role to Brad Pitt, who is playing himself. Their nine-second scene together, which requires 39 takes, is a bit of a poke at director David Fincher, who reportedly did as much with Pitt in "Fight Club" and "Se7en."

If this all seems a bit convoluted, that's kind of the point, as Soderbergh strips layer upon layer of artifice away from his stars. Calvin in the movie with Brad Pitt is obviously phony; the other Calvin seems pretty "real," until we find out he's actually Nicholas playing a role. How close "Nicholas" is to Blair Underwood himself is anybody's guess. Even Soderbergh gets into the game here, doing a cameo as the director of "Exposed" -- with his face blacked out.

While Calvin's "on-screen" romance with Francesca is shot in lustrous 35mm, Nicholas' "off-screen" affair with Lee (the always excellent Catherine Keener) is shot in bleached-out DV, and is way less glamorous in every regard, right down to the petty jealousies and squabbling. Lee, a ruthless of Human Resources V.P., who looks like she chews through men like corn on the cob, is bent on leaving her nebbishy husband Carl (David Hyde Pierce, from TV's "Frasier"). Carl is the kind of guy who manages to get himself fired and dumped in the same day, and causes his dog to OD on hash brownies to top it off.

The scene in which Carl gets fired from his trendy magazine editing job is a perfect example of the sort of dross that passes for creative management in Los Angeles these days. Carl's boss asks him, "When you see a beer in the fridge, do you pour it in the glass, or drink it from the bottle?" When Carl responds the former, his boss cuts in: "See, that's the problem. I want this to be a magazine that drinks from the bottle."

"Full Frontal" is the kind of movie that forgets the lukewarm bottle somewhere, and goes to get a fresh one; when the aforementioned scenarios lose their fizz, the film turns to Lee's sister Linda (Mary McCormack), who's looking for a relationship that will last longer than three months, or to an unnamed actor (played by Nicky Katt) who's playing Adolf Hitler in a minitheater play titled "The Sound and The Fuhrer." Katt gets all the film's best laughs as a stupendously arrogant actor in an outrageously stupid role. (Adolf to Eva Braun: "I have too much on my hands to have a relationship right now!")

Of course, Katt is a totally egregious inclusion with no connection to the rest of the story -- he's not even invited to Gus' party. Except, of course, if you consider the whole point of the film as sending up the pretensions and ego trips of actors in general, which when you consider Soderbergh's "rules," may have been the case.

As far as Hollywood satires go, "Full Frontal" lacks the focus and bite of "The Player" or "Hurlyburly," but it has its moments. It was largely panned by critics who were expecting another "Traffic," but I'd file it next to Paul Thomas Anderson's "Punch-Drunk Love," another example of what happens when a great director takes a break from being "great." Genius, no, but always intriguing, and risk-taking is something directors don't get to do enough of these days anyway.

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