Accepting a Palme d'Or for sex, lies, and videotape at Cannes in 1989, Steven Soderbergh quipped, probably only half in jest, that it was all downhill from there. Soderbergh was 26 years old, and his subsequent career has passed through moments—Kafka, Underneath and Schizopolis—when those words have seemed either prophetic or self-fulfilling. That said, who knew that the man rightly credited with pioneering a new golden age of independent film would later surface as a major Hollywood romantic, churning out bold, literate, elegant studio movies—Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven—of a kind that hasn't been common in mainstream American cinema since the 1930s and '40s? It would be nice to think that more boats will rise on Soderbergh's tide, but right now, I can't think of another American director who has crossed over so handily from the idiosyncratic into the mainstream and, perhaps more significantly, back again.
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Soderbergh's career pattern is unique, and so is his attitude. Where others would sit tight on their studio laurels and watch the money roll in, he waltzes off on a modestly budgeted adventure in guerrilla filmmaking. With stars, of course, but they have to bring their own wardrobe and do their own makeup without benefit of trailers. ("If you need to be alone a lot," Soderbergh stipulated in a rule sheet sent to the cast of his new movie, "you're pretty much screwed.") Soderbergh now commands enough clout and loyalty from his actors that for Full Frontal—a fanciful tale of 24 hours in the lives of nine lost souls rooting around trendy LA for human connection—he has been able to talk Brad Pitt and several industry wheels (David Fincher and Jerry Weintraub among them) into bit parts and Julia Roberts into a wig that looks like a mangy knockoff of Jane Fonda's 'do in Klute. Roberts is key to the movie-within-a-movie conceit: she plays Francesca, an actress playing Catherine, a Los Angelesmagazine journalist (we won't take it personally that an empty LA Weekly rack makes a cameo appearance) who's writing a feature on a cocksure black actor named Nicholas, who's played by Calvin, who's played by Blair Underwood in a slyly ambiguous departure from his holy television demeanor.
Made either out of Soderbergh's fabled unease with success or his determination to continue doing what he did as a struggling unknown a decade ago—in other words, whatever he pleases—Full Frontal is, for better and worse, a schizopolis all its own. Catherine and Nicholas' story is shot in glossy 35mm; the rest of the cast appears in digital. The idea is to distinguish between the real and the screen-real, but the mostly hand-held DV sequences (shot by Soderbergh, masquerading again in the credits as Peter Andrews) look awful, and they dominate the movie. Blurry and gray and stripped of the lush romanticism of Soderbergh's recent films, Full Frontal is hard to watch. Which is a waste of a stellar ensemble: Catherine Keener, for example, extending her ball-buster rsum as a corporate type who works off her frustrations by humiliating fired employees while also trying to leave her loving husband, a nerdy journalist and screenwriter played by David Hyde Pierce, and bullying her sister (Mary McCormack), a hotel masseuse and desperate Internet dater.
Soderbergh has said that if he were making sex, lies, and videotape today, it would look like Full Frontal. Part love story and part Hollywood satire, his new feature, like his first, aspires to catch the Zeitgeist of a generation (his own, again) in free fall. Not much has changed, apparently, though the movie is lighter of heart and freer of form than sex, lies, and videotape, which for all its insights suffered from the portentousness of youth. Even when Soderbergh bites the hand that feeds by introducing a very funny Harvey Weinstein clone (Miramax, which also released sex, lies, and videotape, is the distributor for Full Frontal), it's really more of a hickey. Full Frontal grew out of a series of scenes written from life by Coleman Hough, an old friend of Soderbergh. The director added voice-overs taken from "interviews" conducted with the actors about their characters, and gave the film its frame. Though there are scenes of great delight—Underwood serenading Roberts with a rap piece about being black in Hollywood and some wonderful uproar provided by Nicky Katt as an actor playing Hitler in one of those godawful fringe plays that so often pass for theater in LA—the movie remains fragmented, elliptical and overplotted to the point of being hard to track. Still, it's worth hanging in for the finish, a birthday party for Gus (David Duchovny), the producer of the film and the one person they're all linked to. Then Soderbergh pulls off a delicious trick, a gesture of pure, tender, unabashed movie love that makes up for everything.
Full Frontal was directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Coleman Hough; produced by Scott Kramer and Gregory Jacobs; and stars Julia Roberts, Blair Underwood and Catherine Keener. Now playing at Edwards Brea Stadium, Brea, and Edwards South Coast Village, Santa Ana.