REVIEW: Getting Shallow In Hollywood; Soderbergh's Messy "Full Frontal"
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE: 08.01.02) -- Go to google.com, type in "Soderbergh" plus "overrated," press enter, and you'll be rewarded with a spate of entries arguing that either Steven is God's gift to the praying moviegoer or that he's the creation of a group of despairing critics groups in search of a modern wunderkind to praise.
Rex Reed, for example, calls Soderbergh "the overrated critic's darling"; Supersphere.com's Sam McAbee settles for "[he's] slipping into ass-kissing Hollywoodland," while Sex & Guts magazine's Stephen Rowland goes full throttle with "Soderbergh is a cheap, sniveling, fake bastard who needs a swift kick in the balls ... He's way up high on my list of shit directors who are ruining cinema as a valid art form."
(Hey! Greg Araki, Baz Luhrmann, and Darren Aronofsky, don't you smirk. You're the other directors in testicle-danger when Rowland's in the room.)
But weighing in heavily on the other side of the seesaw is Ingmar Bergman who noted in a recent interview in a Swedish morning paper that "among today's directors I'm of course impressed by Steven Spielberg and Scorsese and Coppola, even if he seems to have ceased making films, and Steven Soderbergh. They all have something to say. They're passionate. They have an idealistic attitude to the filmmaking process. Soderbergh's "Traffic" is amazing."
What's especially amazing about "Traffic" is that it has a Republican anti-drug czar played by Michael Douglas resign his post for the sake of his crackhead daughter's future. If only George W. followed suit to salvage the Boozin' Bush Girls, we'd really have something to celebrate.
But life doesn't always follow art, and Soderbergh doesn't always create art. Take his "Ocean's Eleven," truly one of the worst all-star films to rear its fatuous head in many a year. Unfunny, unstructured, and unworthy of even a Pauly Shore.
Yet spend sometime with Soderbergh's elegantly raucous "Gray's Anatomy," a waggish adaptation of Spalding Gray's superb one-man concert. Without diluting it one iota, Soderbergh with crackerjack skill opens up the work about a visually-impaired man in search of a Reichian orgasm who instead winds up reverse farting.
Move on then to his groundbreaking masterpiece which Soderbergh also wrote and edited, "sex, lies, and videotape." The film that made Sundance an institution and inspired far too many indie directors has lost none of its brutal power. The American male and female and their addiction/repulsion to wedded bliss has seldom been so well vivisected. Who can forget Andie MacDowell's Ann telling her shrink: "Being happy is not so great."?
Then there was the brave but tediously humorless "Kafka" in which Jeremy Irons notes: "I can no longer deny I'm part of the world around me." And so forth and so on: "Erin Brockovich" a convivial genre piece starring an adequate actress. "The Limey"? Lots of critics adored it. "Out of Sight"? Even more critics sang its praises. Then there's his screenplay for "Nightwatch, which at least scared the bejesus out of me.
So now where does Soderbergh turn after going Hollywood so recently? He makes an indie with West Coast superstars, aging TV stars, and a few indie stars. The result is a jejune mess that insults as much as it grates. "Full Frontal" is a full frontal assault on the intelligent filmgoer's sensibilities. As for the stupid filmgoer, he or she won't be too thrilled either.
Here Soderbergh, who's apparently too busy being an institution to write any more, employs a structurally god-awful screenplay by Coleman Hough that to be honest does have a witty insight now and then. More then than now. Ms. Hough, you probably already know if you read the Southern Poetry Review regularly, is a well-respected poet. Here is a brief excerpt from her lovely "What I loved about you":
". . . I loved
the way you loved
vietnamese malaysian thai
held my hand at the movies
wear my seatbelt . . . "
Now forcefully wearing a seatbelt while watching this caper is probably the only way you'll still remain in your seat. "Full Frontal," you see, is a film about actors playing actors who are making a film. For example Julia Roberts is playing Francesca, an actress who's playing Catherine, a journalist, in a movie being made about a movie being made. Now Catherine is interviewing an upcoming Hollywood black actor Nicholas who's being played by Calvin who is really being played by Blair Underwood. Now Nicholas, who's playing Brad Pitt's sidekick in an action feature, has the hots for Catherine while Calvin is screwing Lee, the VP of Human Resources at a large corporation. Lee's played by Catherine Keener. Now Lee's married to Cal (David Hyde Pierce) who writes for Los Angeles magazine. Just so you're not confused, let me explain Cal and Lee are real people, not characters in the film that's being made about a film being made.
Don't worry. Since Hough's screenplay is incomprehensible, Soderbergh shot the "real" people on digital videotape and the "fake" people on film. A highlight is David Duchovny's Gus getting a huge erection while he's being massaged by Lee's sister Linda (Mary McCormack). There's something thrilling about seeing a boner in a film as limp as this one.
So in the end, what's "Full Frontal" about? It's quite possibly about the shallowness of the people in the film industry. For a better take on the subject, try Truffaut's "Day for Night."
In the most hypocritical moment of this feature, and there are more than one, Roberts' white Catherine is about to kiss the black Nicholas, but they fake us out and their lips never meet. If Soderbergh had any balls (maybe Rowland got to them already?) Roberts and Underwood would have had a long tongue kiss. That would have done more to eradicate prejudice then Denzel Washington's Oscar-winning turn in the idiotic cop caper "Training Day."
Which brings us now to Soderbergh's interview in Marina Zenovich's enjoyable documentary "Independent's Day." When asked about his choice of career, Soderbergh responded, "The question of why someone paints or why someone makes films is one that I don't know anyone can really answer. You just feel compelled to do it."
He then added, "In the past 8 or 10 years, making a movie has sort of creeped up on being a rock star on the fantasy list for a lot of people which is amusing. Why? Mostly because it's a lot easier than learning an instrument."
Another film like this one or "Ocean's Eleven," and, Steven, I'll pay for your trombone lessons.