How Bad Do You Want It?

'Full Frontal' teases us with promises of sex, lies, and videotape

Here are a few of the things Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal is not. It is not, as has been rumored, a sequel to sex, lies, and videotape, although the titular elements of the director's debut also figure in this, the 12th film he has made in 13 years. And although it is a film about filmmaking, it's hardly a reprise of François Truffaut's enraptured, albeit comedic, depiction of the process in Day for Night. (A line, however, from Truffaut's film--to the effect that the era of studio-style production is over, and from now on films will be made in the street--might have served as a jumping-off point for the movie, which was shot in 18 days on location in L.A., largely in digital video, for a mere $2 million.)

Nor is Full Frontal the titillating experience that its title suggests. This is a film in which there is almost no nudity, and such sex as there is either takes place offscreen (one hand job) or is shot out of focus at a distance, with a lens that seems to have been coated with Vaseline. Indeed, the film is so blatant in its refusal to fulfill the expectations raised by a lengthy, clever publicity campaign (in which Soderbergh was clearly complicit, and which cost a good deal more than the movie itself) that the effect is to throw the issue of what you thought you were going to get and why you wanted it into your own popcorn-laden lap. In other words, Full Frontal is exactly as Soderbergh has half-mockingly described it: "your garden-variety postmodern summer movie."

And it's probably one of two American summer movies that will still be in my head come Christmas. (The other is Nicole Holofcener's Lovely & Amazing.) Soderbergh has referred to Full Frontal as his L.A. swan song, and, like the city itself (or rather the part of the city that revolves around the movie industry), it's both easy on the eye and hard on the psyche, depressingly self-enclosed and confusingly tangential. Composed of two interlocking movies, one of them more dominant than the other, the narrative contains more puzzles than can be sorted out in a single viewing.

The dominant movie takes place in a single 24-hour period and follows seven characters as they go about their daily routines and prepare to attend a party in honor of a big-time producer named Gus (David Duchovny), who has the misfortune of turning 40. Gus's current project is a Nora Ephron-like comedy titled Rendezvous, about the romance between an entertainment reporter (Julia Roberts, in a wig every bit as unflattering as the one Jacqueline Bisset wore in Day for Night) and an African-American actor (Blair Underwood) who has just gotten his first big break--playing second banana to Brad Pitt in an action flick directed by David Fincher. (Yes, the maker and star of Fight Club both make cameo appearances here.) While the untitled Pitt/Fincher opus is the movie within Rendezvous, Rendezvous is not exactly the movie within Full Frontal; rather, it exists in a more abstract temporality where scenes that are entirely edited and mixed alternate with scenes that are being shot before our eyes.

Produced in 35mm and Dolby, Rendezvous is the aesthetic foil to the main body of the film, which was shot by Soderbergh with a handheld digital video camera, and has the acidic colors and blown-out look of early color Xeroxes, combined with the grainy effect of Super 8 home movies. (The look is not purely digital: It's the result of a very sophisticated video-to-film transfer. And regardless of what the official Full Frontal Web site suggests, it can't be duplicated with a Handycam and Final Cut Pro.) Juxtaposing two radically different styles and formats, Soderbergh lets you go on your own merry way thinking that one (the digital video) is more real than the other (the 35mm), then uses the final shot to drive home his basic point: that the entire film is no more or less than a representational construct--i.e., a movie.

This may sound like an academic exercise, but the pleasure Soderbergh takes in his materials--the film, the video, the wonderfully subtle actors--is contagious. Full Frontal is giddy and gorgeous to look at. It's also quick on its feet; Soderbergh gooses up the lengthy handheld shots with more jump cuts than Godard used in Breathless. The film is made with such verve and spontaneity that it takes awhile to realize that beneath its dazzling surface is a rather ugly society where almost all professional and personal interactions are based in humiliation.

With a script by Coleman Hough, the film proceeds as a series of two-handed skits that climax in a party--which, on the morning after, everyone prefers to forget. In addition to the producer and stars of Rendezvous, the central characters are a screen- and magazine writer named Carl (David Hyde Pierce), who, like almost everyone else, is in crisis about impending middle age. Carl is married to Lee (Catherine Keener), a corporate executive whose torturing of her husband and the underlings she pink-slips are her only way of coping with her own massive insecurity. Lee's sister Linda (Mary McCormack), a masseuse, and a supremely oblivious actor (Nicky Katt) who's playing Hitler in Carl's play The Sound and the Führer (which has a couple of moments as outrageously funny as Springtime for Hitler's in The Producers) round out this group of raging, wounded narcissists.

It would be easy to condescend to them, but Soderbergh never does, and as a result their dilemmas and their desperate attempts to connect emotionally take on unexpected resonance. Don't be surprised if, upon leaving Full Frontal, you discover that the "real" world--including your own voice--sounds as if it were part of the movie.

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