Steven Soderbergh began his career with a ferocious bang at the age of 26 by winning the Palm d'Or at Cannes for his first film, sex, lies and videotape. "It's all downhill from here," he famously cracked as he accepted the prize. For a few years, his words seemed prophetic as he struggled to live up to enormous expectations, making a series of forgettable films (the most fondly remembered is the wartime coming-of-age tale King of the Hill).
By 1996, Soderbergh was burned out, and he returned to his Baton Rouge hometown to make a tortured, nearly unwatchable cri de coeur called Schizopolis. But somehow his fortunes began to improve, first with Out of Sight, a slickly entertaining Elmore Leonard adaptation using A-list stars, then with The Limey, an absorbing, disjunctively edited revenge drama that won widespread critical acclaim, if not much public notice.
Then came his annus mirabilus, 2000, when both Erin Brockovich and Traffic hit the movie screens. For the first time in 60 years, a director received Oscar nominations for two films in the same year, and Soderbergh walked off with the Best Director award for Traffic. This seemed to mark the crowning of a new Ford, Hawks or Wyler, someone who could make movies the old-fashioned way: that is, well-crafted and entertaining, middlebrow and profitable.
Expectations were understandably high for Soderbergh's next film, but instead of taking on another project that originated in the real world, as with the populist Erin Brockovich and the anti-drug war Traffic, Soderbergh chose to direct an expensive, star-laden and meretricious remake of Ocean's 11, a forgotten bit of Rat Pack goofing from the 1960s. This slick and pointless film led some to wonder if behind Soderbergh's intelligence and talent lies the heart of a star-struck hack, or perhaps simply a talented craftsman who cares more about the process of making movies than with the content of the product.
Almost as if he's anticipating such charges, Soderbergh now comes to us with Full Frontal, a deliberately low-budget, digital video portrait of Hollywood As It Really Is, scripted by first-timer Coleman Hough. Shot in 18 days last fall, just before the release of Ocean's 11, this film is allegedly something of a spiritual sequel to sex, lies and videotape. But Full Frontal isn't about a group of fairly ordinary small-town folks. Instead, we follow a day in the life of Hollywood, a town that is (surprise, surprise) full of power-mad agents, egotistical superstars, fawning entertainment journalists, opportunistic actors and self-loathing directors. It's not that these people don't exist, or can't be made compelling. It's just that, in Full Frontal, they're not interesting.
It's not impossible to make a good movie about Hollywood and its currencies of sex, power and celebrity: Sunset Boulevard, The Player and Mulholland Drive come quickly to mind. But one thing these movies have in common is that they were made by adversarial personalities. Billy Wilder got along well in Hollywood as long as his caustic movies sold tickets, but Robert Altman and David Lynch have much more troubled histories as artists who have been seduced and abandoned by the Hollywood dream factory. The Player and Mulholland Drive were fairly teeming with the rage of men who'd been burned.
Steven Soderbergh, on the other hand, is an insider who has figured out how to make his movies in Hollywood. This makes much of the "satire" of Full Frontal feel rote. Soderbergh seems like a much happier man now than he was six years ago, when he made the bitter and anguished Schizopolis with borrowed equipment, unknown actors and a crew of five old friends. But there's no such conviction to the Hollywood satire of his new film.
The trouble starts at the very beginning, when we see head shots of the major characters, accompanied by select information such as, "Calvin Cummings; Actor; Believes there is no such thing as bad sex." We're also told whether or not these characters have secured invitations to a birthday party of an important director. This prologue is unfortunate because the film is essentially conceding the shallowness of its characters from the get-go. We're about to enter a world in which everyone has a vulnerability that can be exploited, and every person's importance is measured by the party invitations she receives.
After dispensing with the introductions, the movie begins with a film within the film, starring the aforementioned Calvin (Blair Underwood) and Francesca (Julia Roberts, in a spectacularly lazy performance), and directed by Gus Delaria (David Duchovny), who is the honored guest at the very important birthday party. This film within the film is a mostly unfunny take on The Pelican Brief, or more specifically, of Denzel Washington's notorious refusal to kiss Julia Roberts in that film, for fear of offending his black female fans. This is seriously inside baseball, but the rest of Full Frontal isn't any more urgent. Away from the Underwood-Roberts pas de deux, we encounter the personal and professional anguish of a loosely interrelated group of Los Angelenos, most of whom are having a very bad day, one that will culminate in that birthday party.
At the party, there's a pompous entertainment journalist who gets fired (David Hyde Pierce, doing William H. Macy); his wife, an agent who terrorizes her employees but turns into a doormat in her love life (Catherine Keener); and a mousy massage therapist (Mary McCormack) who's having an Internet romance with a pretentious and unsuccessful playwright (Enrico Colantoni). The film's liveliest performance comes from Nicky Katt, as an arrogant unknown actor starring as Hitler in an off-off-Wilshire stage production called The Sound and the Führer. Katt's performance is delicious, but it's not nearly enough to save the film.
If the self-congratulatory press materials are taken at face value, the story and characters are less important than the filmmaking process. The production notes make a good deal of the film's low budget and how the actors are forgoing their usual salaries (the entire film was made for a 10th of Julia Roberts' normal fee). Furthermore, Soderbergh's edicts to the cast are proffered as evidence of the film's authenticity. For example, actors are warned that they must drive themselves to the set, do their own makeup and buy their own lunch (for the complete document, go to
www.fullfrontal.com/rules. html). However, it's impossible to imagine that these "rules" put off Julia Roberts, Blair Underwood, Brad Pitt (who, in a real stretch, appears as "himself" and "Brad Pitt") and their lesser known co-stars. More likely, they reacted with pleasure, as in, "We're going camping!" Only, they're camping in their backyard, pretending that they're guerilla Dogme 95 filmmakers.
There's no harm in high-priced talent like Soderbergh and his cohorts making a low-budget quickie; in fact, it would be nice if it happened more often. But is Soderbergh's imagination so limited that, having decided to hit the streets with $2 million and a video camera, he chose to make a boring, self-referential movie about the movie industry? Why not, for example, make a modest film about the domestic servants of Beverly Hills, or a tense tale of Mexicans crossing the border or even a non-sensationalistic treatment of celebrity stalkers? These would be provocative, if uncommercial, films worth seeking out.
Instead, we get something vapid and semi-commercial: a movie about movies and the people who make them, lost in a hall of mirrors that confuses illusion and reality, needs and desires. Maybe there's some pathos here, but it's more likely that we'll check the sky, hopefully, to see if the locusts are on the way.