Steven Soderbergh’s latest is a challenging practical joke
Shot in 18 days by a mostly improvising cast, Full Frontal is seemingly Steven Soderbergh’s response to Mike Figgis’ experimental Timecode, albeit instead of four continuous shots playing themselves out on a screen split in quarters, following the real-time actions of disparate characters who collide in the end, here we have movies-within-movies-within-movies, layered to the point that one is never quite certain what is real or reel. It’s not necessarily an original conceit, but at least credit goes to Soderbergh and his game cast for giving it the Hollywood go and for managing to avoid looking as confused as most of the audience will no doubt be.
It’s yet another self-referential Hollywood lark, as we follow several big-name actors playing industry types moving through the course of a day as they gather momentum to attend a big-time producer’s 40th birthday bash that evening. The movie plays on the perception that denizens of Tinseltown themselves are never quite sure when they are playing a role, even when the cameras are off. In truth, Full Frontal is never more luscious looking than when the lights and cameras are on the characters, and never more grainy, desperate, and begrimed with indie cred as when the director yells “Cut!” and the gaffer cuts the power.
With tongue solidly in cheek, it’s deliberately disorienting from the start, as Soderbergh forsakes opening credits for the actual film in order to scroll the title, cast, and crew of the primary film-within-a-film, Rendezvous. The latter is seemingly a glossy, big-budget, big-name vehicle featuring Julia Roberts (as reporter) as she interviews Blair Underwood (as young Turk) about to make his break in a Brad Pitt actioner. And then, er, things get weird, as Roberts yanks off her wig and the actors stop and stare at the camera as if waiting for instructions, and the film stock degrades to gritty cinema-vérité shaky-cam, and a whole new game is afoot.
It reminds me of that old Charles Addams cartoon of a barber, as he cuts a client’s hair, glancing aside down the perceptual endless corridors of opposing mirrors and seeing, in the multitudes of the client’s many reflections, the visage of a werewolf. Just when you’ve grasped a slender thread of narrative that seems to be leading somewhere, Soderbergh drops the other end and throws out a couple more tangled strings of coincidence and existential tomfoolery.
In a way, Soderbergh seems to be playing one big ol’ practical joke on all the folks who want to see a rematch of the Roberts/Soderbergh dynamic that brought them Erin Brockovich, or want to see David Duchovny’s latest big-screen venture—although Duchovny’s role serves here as the cinematic equivalent of a whoopee cushion. There are a lot of films lumped in the love-it/loathe-it category, but here finally is one that does its damnedest to earn that crown. It’s one of the more challenging films of recent memory, but the biggest challenge may be figuring out whether there was an actual point to the whole project.