After three consecutive movies that grossed over $100 million, not to mention the Best Director Oscar, Steven Soderbergh needs to be put in his place. That’s apparently the view of most critics, who did not spank him for the overrated Serious Drama Traffic or for the trifling star vehicle Ocean’s Eleven; he was still their golden boy then, but now, with Full Frontal, he has gone back to that … weird independent stuff. This is good news, say I; welcome back, Steve. The guy must’ve wanted to take a break from blockbusters and Oscar bait to make a little film just because he thought it should be made. I say he’s earned it.
This is one of those Chinese-box reality-within-reality projects that are easy to make fun of. Worse still, it’s a movie about movies, and there’s a movie within the movie, and a movie within the movie within the movie. There is also a play, The Sound and the Fuehrer, in which Richard Linklater regular Nicky Katt plays an irritable and contemporary-attitude Hitler (his cell phone rings; “Damn, it’s Goebbels; he thinks it’s a toy”). The play looks painfully bad; the movie within the movie looks like some dead-in-the-water romance in which movie star Francesca (played by movie star Julia Roberts) is playing a magazine reporter interviewing movie star Nicholas (Blair Underwood); when the reporter accompanies her subject to the set of his film, we see footage that looks even worse (though the fun is in spotting the director and co-star of this movie within the movie within the movie).
The “reality” in the movie is shot on mega-grainy digital video, the choice du jour of indie filmmakers who don’t have to shoot digital but do it anyway. We meet Carl (David Hyde Pierce) and Arthur (Enrico Colantoni), the co-authors of the play and the reporter/movie-star screenplay. Carl himself is a reporter, and some of his experiences find their way into the movie within the movie. Carl’s marriage to Lee (Catherine Keener), a hopelessly miserable human-resources manager who fires people all day, is on the skids; Lee’s sister Linda (Mary McCormack) is a massage therapist headed to Tucson to meet a guy she’s been seeing online. Everybody’s paths converge at a fortieth-birthday party in honor of Gus (David Duchovny), a film producer whose particular use for a plastic bag reverses all the positive publicity plastic bags got from American Beauty.
As you might surmise, none of this really goes anywhere. It’s an experiment, largely carried on the shoulders of its actors; Catherine Keener, who I expect to assume control of the planet any day now, adds another notch of greatness to her belt as the bewildered, strenuously unhappy Lee, and there are worse ways to spend your time than watching Nicky Katt in his Hitler mustache throwing hissy fits backstage about the actors playing his bodyguards. Too little seen lately, Mary McCormack brings her usual sanity to her role and to the movie, though even her character isn’t above lies and theft. At times, this comes close to being Soderbergh’s Neil LaBute movie — there is, as the crude old saying has it, no one to root for.
Full Frontal is nothing great or revolutionary; it’s a doodle movie, a sketchbook. I was held by the tinkering quality of it, though. Steven Soderbergh seems to get more excited about a project like this, which has no clearcut “point,” than about his recent run of story-driven, dependable-director movies. And it isn’t really all that self-indulgent; critics have heaped praise on films a lot more nebulous and pompous than this one (Magnolia, anyone?). I would hesitate to recommend Full Frontal to anyone who doesn’t share my patience with such experiments, but it’s there for those who do.