|Written by Bill Warren|
|Tuesday, 11 February 2003|
Every few films, Steven Soderbergh makes a kind of palate-cleanser, a movie made to reorient himself after several big-budget projects. Last year, his palate-cleanser was this comedy-drama about a couple of days in the lives of a group of Hollywood types. It's highly episodic, jumping from one small bunch of characters to another, heading for the suicide of one of them.
Treating this material in this almost cinema-verite fashion is interesting in itself, and all of the performances are very good, especially Blair Underwood and Julia Roberts (paired throughout). But Soderbergh extends his idea a little too far; in addition to the "real life" sequences, there's also a movie-within-the-movie ("Full Frontal" opens with bogus credits for that film, including the title) which he tries to distinguish by using normal Hollywood photography for the movie-with sequences, and hand-held video photography for the rest. But they still look so much alike, that it soon becomes confusing, even boring. "Full Frontal" has a lot of virtues, but it still doesn't measure up to Soderbergh's best work. However, especially from this DVD, it looks like everyone had a great time making it.
Included in the DVD extras is Soderbergh's list of The Rules, including such daunting elements as no trailers, no craft service (i.e. refreshments on the set), the actors had to provide their own wardrobe and transportation, etc. And the movie finished shooting in 18 days. I imagine that made for a rocky if entertaining production, but it doesn't really pay off on screen; for the audience, that's all that really matters.
The movie-in-a-movie story is both interesting and confusing; journalist Catherine (Roberts) is conducting a marathon interview with handsome black actor Nicholas (Underwood), starting on an L.A.-bound plane, and continuing onto the set of a movie he's making with Brad Pitt (seen briefly). It's a bit startling when Roberts takes off her black wig (and the movie snaps over to "real life"), but at least it gives us an easy way to tell when Roberts is playing the fictional Catherine and when she's playing Francesca, her "real" identity. (Note: the face of the director of Nicholas' movie is obscured by a moving rectangle; not sure why this was done, but it's David Fincher.)
We also meet David Hyde Pierce, screenwriter-playwright Carl, who is aware that his marriage isn't as happy as it might be, but unaware that his wife Lee (Catherine Keener) intends to leave him. Things get confusing again here. Carl wrote the movie in progress, and also (?) a play called "The Sound and the Fuhrer," with Nicky Katt as the obnoxious, arrogant actor playing Hitler. The play is being directed by Enrico Colantoni, who also apparently has a role in the movie, and one in "real life." At one point, Carl is fired by the editor of the magazine he works for (since Catherine does, too, we must assume this means the Carl-as-journalist scenes are "fictional"). Carl also has a neighbor who goes about all the time -- we see him taking out the garbage -- dressed as a vampire.
Linda (Mary McCormack) is Lee's sister, and a masseuse, visiting clients in hotels where she's well known. Eventually, she services -- in more ways than one -- the distraught Gus (David Duchovny), who is the producer of the movie we seeing made. He's also listed in the credits as "Bill," but that's just more confusion. Pitt, Terence Stamp and Jerry Weintraub appear as (I imagine) themselves, though Stamp may be the tough old gangster from Soderbergh's fine "The Limey."
The movie meanders on, moving from one segment to another, finally winding up at a lavish part atop a Sunset Strip hotel.
"Full Frontal" (the title does not indicate nudity) is a frustrating movie to watch; it's undeniably interesting and often very amusing (particularly in a sequence in which Carl mistakenly believes his dog has been poisoned), but the connections and continuity between the segments are rarely clear, so the film never really engages you emotionally or intellectually. We don't much care about any of the characters, either. Soderbergh's attempt to separate scenes from the movie-in-the-movie from just the movie by the clarity and "professionalism" of the movie-in-the-movie cinematography vs. the hand-held, video look of the rest, undoubtedly worked better in theaters than it does on video, where all the images are on video. Plentiful jump cuts in the "real life" segments are annoying, and not refreshingly realistic.
Unfortunately, telling the two sections apart become crucial to the enjoyment of the movie; if you can't readily do it, you disengage from the movie. But there's still the very good acting to carry you along. In addition to Roberts and Underwood, those giving especially good performances include Hitler actor Nicky Catt, Enrico Colantoni and David Hyde Pierce. You may end up as annoyed by the film as you are entertained.
There are several extras on the DVD, the most interesting of which are the commentary track by Soderbergh and Coleman Hough (he gave her a brief cameo in the party scene), which explains a great deal about their intentions. The deleted-scenes section is much more interesting than usual; these scenes mostly must have been cut for length alone. The "Spycam" -- brief black-and-white footage shot on the sets -- is an interesting idea that goes nowhere. There are also some interviews with the actors adopting the personalities of the characters they're playing. This is more interesting to hear about than actually to see. The sound is the sort that's quickly grabbed, and not worked on a lot, to retain the reality of those segments.
Some people reacted to "Full Frontal" as if Steven Soderbergh betrayed them. How could he do movies as good as "Traffic," "Erin Brockovich" and "Ocean's 11" and then do this? Well, he's an experimental sort of guy, almost always photographing all his movies while directing them -- which indicates he's very interested in both technique and storytelling. I think it's terrific that he's able to do these low-budget palate cleansers when he wants to; they probably keep him fresh and focused when he makes big budget films. More power to Steven Soderbergh -- but that doesn't mean you have to see "Full Frontal."