Looking for the dirty thrill of ogling a real porn star, Sasha Grey, as she plays a high-priced Manhattan hooker doing a suck-fuck Kama Sutra? Then, dear God, steer clear of The Girlfriend Experience. Grey, 21, is there, all right, but director Steven Soderbergh, 46, has no interest in servicing the panting john in us. His movie, stylishly shot on the high-def cheap, runs 77 potently sexless minutes. Its subject isn't erotica, it's commodities trading. The time is a few days before Obama's election, and Grey's Chelsea shores up her war chest in a free-falling economy by charging $2,000 an hour for sexual healing. Chelsea's got overhead (accountant, manager, website, clothing line). She might as well be a Hollywood player, which is Soderbergh's point. What do you call trading another Ocean's flick to do an art film such as Che?
Chelsea defines cool, deflecting a pushy journalist (New York magazine writer Mark Jacobson) and blowing off a porn reviewer, played with skeevy relish by legit film critic Glenn Kenny, who offers a money review in exchange for free samples. His revenge review is a hoot. Kenny is a jolt of comic life, much needed in a film that keeps its distance even when Chelsea falls for a client — a no-no in Chelsea World and in her live-in arrangement with her boyfriend (Chris Santos), a personal trainer with his own agenda for whoring upward. The switch from detachment to feeling seems more willed than persuasive in the script by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who collaborated with Soderbergh on Ocean's Thirteen. Emotion doesn't ring true here. Adult Video News Award winner Grey sure as hell can't act it, and Oscar winner Soderbergh can't sell it. Twenty years after his debut, Soderbergh is still putting sex and lies on tape. What makes The Girlfriend Experience a fresh provocation is not the new ways available to build a fantasy but the near-impossibility of negotiating one you can actually believe in.