Early buzz has been brutal on the experimental new movie from Steven Soderbergh. The rap is that the Oscar-winning director is full of himself for shooting Full Frontal in just eighteen days for a paltry $2 million using digital cameras available to any amateur (Free advice: Don’t try this at home). Add to that the Soderbergh dogma that his starry cast, including Julia Roberts and David Duchovny, wear their own clothes and do their own hair and makeup.
Please! It’s all part of the joke. Soderbergh may have created a bit of a mess with Full Frontal, but it’s a playful and scrappy mess, alive to the potential of technology without letting it freeze off feeling. Soderbergh has teamed with first-time screenwriter Coleman Hough to follow seven Los Angeles characters during a single day. Roberts plays Francesca, an actress starring in a film in which she plays a lowly reporter doing a celeb interview. Her co-star Calvin (Blair Underwood) plays the celeb in the film within the film, which Soderbergh shoots in Hollywood style. The rest is done on DV, capturing the go-for-it spirit of Soderbergh’s low-budget 1989 debut, Sex, Lies and Videotape.
Other characters include Gus (Duchovny), the producer of the movie; Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a writer for Los Angeles Magazine whose corporate VP wife, Lee (Catherine Keener), is having an affair with Calvin; and Lee’s sister Linda (Mary McCormack), a hotel masseuse whose work on Gus leads to a financial proposition when Gus springs a boner. Duchovny has only one major scene, but he brings a humor and ache to it. The film’s comic peak is Nicky Katt in a standout performance as an actor playing Hitler in a fringe-theater piece about the Führer and his therapist. Sounds awful, plays hilariously.
It’s the death of one of these seven that links everyone in the end. Credit Hyde Pierce and Keener, who ground their characters in emotion, and Roberts and Underwood, who trace the subtle shifts of illusion and reality that define the actor’s life. As to other questions — is Julia playing herself and what’s with the size of Duchovny’s boner? — you be the judge.
The fun comes in watching Soderbergh wing it, even when his film flies off the rails. I don’t buy the theory that he is doing indie penance for scoring box-office hits with Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean’s 11. Soderbergh’s work has always been rooted in rule-busting. It’s just that Full Frontal, like Kafka and Schizopolis, busts more rules than usual. Is it a total success? No. Is it something any true film addict will want to check out? You bet.