If you’ve read any of the ink on Steven Soderbergh’s new film, Full Frontal, you’ll have noticed a pretty consistent script. Here’s a textbook case, we’re told, of a Major Hollywood Director who’s a little unnerved by his own success, who still fancies himself an artist, and so who has made a relentlessly unattractive, uncommercial, deliberately alienating experimental film. Kind of like the rare actor’s actor who wins an Oscar and then confines himself to dark indie films and black box theater for a few years as an offering of penance to his muse. Perhaps there’s an element of truth to this. Perhaps this is the filmmaker’s self-justification–a self-serving, private act of expiation offered up for public viewing. I don’t know–I’m no expert on Soderberghian psychology. But there’s just one problem: I kind of liked the movie.
Full Frontal will not go down in the annals of essential films, but it isn’t meant to. This is part of the problem reviewers have had with it: We’re reluctant to take the minor works of major artists on their own terms. And Soderbergh inhabits a complicated space of major directordom. He enjoys remarkable box office success (his last three films each grossed more than $100 million) and peerless mainstream accolades (two simultaneous Oscar nominations for Best Picture, with Erin Brockovich and Traffic, and a Best Director win for the latter), and yet you’ll find most of his opus deep in the indie section of your video store, if you find it at all. He’s been a filmmaker’s filmmaker, who writes, edits, and photographs many of his movies. He can tell a story straight and subtly (King of the Hill; sex, lies, and videotape) or with editing fireworks (The Limey, Schizopolis). He takes on odd projects with little commercial appeal (Kafka, Gray’s Anatomy). His mainstream success naturally engenders resentment, and many have attacked this return to low-budget filmmaking (albeit sprinkled with the odd megastar) as a disingenuous pose.
In brief–we’ll get our hands dirty peeling the plot layers in a moment–Full Frontal records 24 hours in the interconnected lives of a half-dozen or so people in L.A. at least tangentially connected to The Industry. It’s shot primarily on digital video, alternating with 35mm footage of a movie within the movie. It was made for $2 million and although the actors include the veteran very-VIPs Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt, everyone had to drive herself to the set, apply her own makeup–who knows, pack her own ham sandwich. Arguably in a film about filmmaking, these juicy, Variety-style morsels mean something. But they have remarkably little bearing on the experience of watching this–or any other–movie in the theater.
The movie begins on a Friday morning in L.A. and leaves its characters the same time Saturday morning. In the interim, we switch from character to character as each goes about the day, and interspersed throughout this shifting-perspective narrative are scenes from the film within the film, called “Rendezvous.” Everyone has some connection to a movie producer named Gus, who is responsible for “Rendez-vous” and whose penthouse birthday party most will be attending that night. Calvin (Blair Underwood) and Francesca (Julia Roberts) are actors who play the leads in the film. Carl Bright (an excellent David Hyde Pierce) is a nervous middle-aged magazine writer with thinning hair and justified insecurity about his wife’s continued interest in him. He co-wrote the script for “Rendezvous.” His wife, Lee (the now ubiquitous Catherine Keener), is a burned-out, acerbically depressed vice president of personnel at a nameless firm; she’ll be 41 tomorrow. Linda (Mary McCormack), her younger sister and the underachiever of the pair, is a staff masseuse at the hotel where Gus’ birthday is to be celebrated. She’s met someone on the Internet and, although they’ve never exchanged photographs, they’re planning to meet up this weekend at a Holiday Inn outside of Tucson. Artie, played by Enrico Colantoni, is the other co-writer of “Rendezvous.” He and Carl have also written a play in the ever-expanding genre of Nazi send-ups, “The Sound and the Fuhrer.” He’s putting up the play at a small storefront black-box; tonight is opening night, and Hitler (the scene-stealing Nicky Katt) doesn’t know his lines. Artie is himself distracted by last-minute online chats with a wonderful woman he’s met online–he hasn’t seen her picture, but they’re meeting up this weekend at a Holiday Inn near Tucson.
Everyone seems to be having a crappy day. Carl fails an impromptu personality test administered by his editor-in-chief and finds himself out of a job. Lee, cracking under various strains, makes the employees she is about to lay off stand on chairs and recite African geography. Artie’s play, in dress rehearsals, looks destined for disaster. Linda does something desperate at work for extra money. Lee has a pointless tryst with Calvin that ends in acrimony. Carl comes home to find the dog catatonic.
Throughout all of this we cut back to the 35mm “Rendezvous,” in which Blair Underwood’s Calvin plays an actor who’s making the jump from TV to the big screen by co-starring with Brad Pitt in a lame-brain action flick. Julia Roberts’ Francesca plays the celebrity journalist who’s assigned to profile him. They meet at JFK airport, they banter back and forth on the transcontinental flight to L.A., she follows him on-set for the making of the Brad Pitt movie–that is, the movie within the movie within the movie. She attends pitch meetings with him, sees his weakness, how the system is rigged against him; he wears funny hats; they fall in love. It’s supposed to be Carl’s biting cinematic satire of the industry, and we see odd bits of the screenwriter’s life popping up in his film.
Full Frontal would be stronger if there were more contrast between the digital portions and “Rendezvous.” Visually– in terms of pixels and resolution–there is. Nothing highlights the disparity between digital video and 35mm like toggling back and forth between the two. (Soderbergh has opted for an exaggerated graininess that gives the digital video an impressionistic quality, and is probably preferable to the newscasty, not-as-good-as-film look of straight-ahead DV). But, ironically, nearly every “Rendezvous” shot is a tight, claustrophobic interior shot–relatively inexpensive to shoot–so that the “Hollywood” flick ends up looking like a budget-wary, dialogue-laden indie without enough money to shoot on location or build outdoor sets. Which I guess it lacked. Perhaps that’s intentional–it’s meant to be Carl’s gritty, tell-it-like-it-is Hollywood exposé, ruffling a few feathers and delighting the insiders with its dead-on satire. The joke is that as “Rendezvous” progresses, it becomes more and more formulaic, until it devolves into the pure Hollywood pap it seems to be trying to pillory at its outset. Yet there would be more bite to the humor if the scenes in “Rendez-vous” looked less like everything else in the movie, only prettier.
The temperature of Full Frontal admittedly is low. The characters are often cold, the digital is incapable of bringing much visual warmth, but it’s an appropriate chill. And while all of these films within films and satires within satires can be confusing on first viewing, there is logic here, and there is grammar and syntax–the sentences can be parsed. Editing scenes is one area where Soderbergh shines, and it is another way he consistently distinguishes between “Rendezvous” and the digital Full Frontal that frames it–he has particular facility with jump-cutting dialogue so that conversations retain their coherence and thrust while the editing injects anxiety into the scene. And, throughout, we are treated to fine acting, frequent humor, and bits of dead-on satire.
This is not the first movie about moviemaking, and it isn’t the best. Other films have more crucial or resonant or imaginative things to say about the strange, collaborative art of cinema: see Truffaut’s Day for Night, or Fellini’s 8 1/2, or Godard’s Contempt, or, more recently, Living in Oblivion and CQ. If you want to see Hollywood held up for scrutiny, the choices are endless, from Sunset Boulevard to Altman’s The Player. Full Frontal is a small movie with a tight cast, good acting, some inspired editing, and perhaps we could leave it at that. But there is a point here that is made well.
Full Frontal’s real commentary on Hollywood resides in its structure–what others have, prematurely, I think–dismissed as mere pretension or obfuscation. The movie is deliciously self-indicting. Just as “Rendezvous,” supposedly a film by disillusioned Hollywood insiders mocking the movie business, falls prey to a similar set of Hollywood clichés–an inability to step outside the circle it attempts to draw around Hollywood–so Full Frontal ends with the camera pulling back to reveal another layer of self-regard back to reveal another layer of self-regard. It seems trapped within a hall of mirrors. Could this be a film within a film within a film within a film–movie people looking at movie people looking at movie people, ad infinitum? This kind of infinite regression will infuriate some viewers, titillate others, but it is effective. So maybe Sunset Strip is something of a Moebius strip–it’s not exactly a news flash that Hollywood is a one-dimensional place that bends over backwards to look at itself. But Full Frontal’s own contortions manage to convey this impossible shape, and there’s elegance in that.
Jesse Lichtenstein has worked in movie production and written about online film for The New Republic.