Full Frontal


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Full Frontal
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

With Full Frontal, Soderbergh's remarkable creative run hits a speed bump. Shot partly on consumer-model digital video, it's a heavily improvised riff on artifice and reality in Hollywood (gee, we've never seen that before) in which an ensemble cast faces the reality of their own plastic lives (or something like that).


David Hyde Pierce is Carl Bright, a writer for Los Angeles magazine who's hit a rocky career patch and fears his marriage to a human resources manager named Lee (Catherine Keener) might be doomed. The human resources manager is entrusted mainly with firing people, and takes out her anxiety and guilt in surreal ways, asking wildly inappropriate questions of her interview subjects and making them stand up on a chair and recite a list of all the countries in Africa while catching an inflatable beach ball emblazoned with a map of the world. Mary McCormack is Lee's sister, Linda, a thoroughly professional masseuse who works under an assumed name, sometimes for clients who want more than a massage. One such client is a producer named Gus (David Duchovny), who has no direct contact with any other major character, despite the fact that all of them are eventually headed for a birthday party in his honor.


There are parallel threads involving a satirical play about Hitler (starring Nicky Katt), and a Los Angeles magazine writer named Catherine (Julia Roberts) who's assigned to interview a hunky young tv star named Nicholas (Blair Underwood) on the difficulties faced by black actors in Hollywood. (Underwood's rhythmic, Def Poetry Jam-style analysis of the latter, delivered in the backseat of a limousine, provides the film's most embarrassing moment; the observations are trite, and his randomly syncopated delivery suggests William Shatner.)


But wait, there's more: Roberts also plays Francesca, the actress portraying the reporter in Full Frontal's film-within-a-film; Underwood plays Calvin, the actor playing Nicholas, who is interviewed by Catherine. So Soderbergh is playing with structure again, intercutting the dramatic feature based on real events and a "documentary" about the real-life circumstances that helped influence the feature's creation. In due time, we will be forced to realize that the "documentary" portions of Full Frontal are phony, too. A snippet of behind-the-scenes sequence on a film set includes a guest shot by Soderbergh as himself. A caught-on-camera pitch meeting features a rudely funny cameo by a certain portly, gruff-voiced, New York-born studio boss, identified in the credits only as "Harvey, probably" (as in Harvey Weinstein, co-boss of Miramax, which released Full Frontal). Adding yet another reflective surface to the movie's hall of mirrors, the Harvey character is played by Jeff Garlin, who plays Larry David's manager on HBO's verite comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm.


On paper, it sounds clever and playful, but the result feels like a concept that never got beyond the concept stage. In the press notes, Soderbergh invokes Fellini; didn't Pauline Kael put identification with Fellini on her list of tipoffs that a filmmaker is headed for trouble?


Sure enough, Full Frontal feels like a grad student's footnote to 8 1/2. Its content ranges from likably thin to sort of boring, with stray patches of hilarity (thanks mostly to Katt, whose hyperverbal mix of self-awareness, hostility and alienation provides the movie's only jolt of animal energy). Full Frontal is not a disgrace, exactly, but it feels more like a time-waster than anything else Soderbergh has made?including the improvisational, pseudo-documentary Schizopolis, which starred Soderbergh. The largely handheld camerawork pushes "documentary" realism into the realm of affectation, deliberately missing important lines and moments; the compositions are consistently dull, bland, amateurish, apparently on purpose. The tape-to-film processing cranks up certain colors (orange, red, amber) to a deliriously abstract level, achieving (1) a California pastel texture unlike anything you've seen, and (2) more grit and grain than a D.A. Pennebaker documentary from the 60s. It's as if Soderbergh is trying to show up the digital video guerrillas as a bunch of sissies: "You people want grain? I'll show you grain!" And the movie's remarkably undynamic compositions suggest that Soderbergh thinks of video as a license for laziness. ("Well, I'm not burning film, so I guess I don't have to make a shot list.") The aggressively primitive result might be analyzed as a "style," but it plays like a ruse?one that serves mainly to divert attention from the movie's cliched, anemic theme, which could be summarized as "Hollywood is a dream factory, and the dreamers are caught up in it." Put it this way: Even a bad Steven Soderbergh movie is worth seeing, and Full Frontal is worth seeing.


Framed


Smile, little ones! Christopher Walken has a couple of inspired moments as the villain in The Country Bears, a horrible, horrible, horrible non-movie based on a Disneyland attraction. (It saves Disney a step, I suppose.) Alas, it's not worth seeing the movie just to see Walken. The filmmakers give the bad guy a melodramatic motivation (he's an evil banker who wants to tear down the music hall where the titular band got its start) but not a personality; what little zip Walken provides probably came out of his own actor's toolkit?the mock-ecstatic howls as he flattens a scale model of the music hall, for example. And what kind of idiot filmmakers would cast Walken in a musical kids' comedy, then fail to give him any song-and-dance numbers?


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