Director : Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay : Coleman Hough
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Julia Roberts (Catherine / Francesca), Blair Underwood (Nicholas / Calvin), Catherine Keener (Lee), David Hyde Pierce (Carl), Mary McCormack (Linda), David Duchovny (Gus), Nicky Katt (Hitler), Enrico Colantoni (Ed), Erika Alexander (Lucy), Tracy Vilar (Heather), Jeff Garlin (Harvey)
Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal sounded interesting on paper. Having burst onto the Hollywood scene with the Sundance favorite sex, lies, and videotape back in 1989, which became the model independent film for aspiring filmmakers throughout the 1990s, Soderbergh has attempted to go back to those indie filmmaking roots. Full Frontal is an intimate, multi-character story shot with a minimal budget of $2 million mostly on digital video and starring an impressive cast of movie stars who were forced to drive themselves to the set everyday and do their own hair and make-up.
The result, unfortunately, is a pretentious, shapeless, often boring jumble of a film that is pretending to be a spontaneous, improvised work of art made against the mainstream Hollywood machine. Trying so hard to be independent-cool and ironically self-reflexive, it literally collapses on itself, Full Frontal is a case of the emperor having no clothes. Intended as a 24-hour glimpse into the world of Hollywood, Full Frontal is neither revelatory or particularly interesting, and if it's intended to be funny, the inside nature of most of the jokes will be too cloistered to be humorous for anyone not in the biz (except, of course, the obvious caricature of Miramax's Harvey Weinstein).
And, having been shot on digital video, Full Frontal is ugly. Soderbergh, who works as his own cinematographer, has created memorable imagery in his previous works, from the simple, stark interiors of sex, lies, and videotape, to the scorched look of the Mexico sequences in his Oscar-winning Traffic (2000). But, here he goes the Dogme route, using available light and clumsy hand-held movements and sudden zooms to create something that is pointlessly amateurish when it need not be. Digital video may allow for quick shooting (the whole thing took 18 days) and easy editing (although he clearly favors discontinuity, particularly jump cuts), but on the big screen it is not enjoyable to look at—grainy, washed out, sometimes so overexposed that you can't even tell what you're looking at.
The narrative in Full Frontal tells a series of interlocking stories about several characters and involves a film-within-a-film-within-a-film. Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood star as Francesca and Calvin, two movies stars acting in a movie called Rendezvous in which they play Catherine and Nicholas. Catherine is a reporter who is doing a magazine story on Nicholas, who is an actor starring in a movie. Following so far?
Other characters include the screenwriter of Rendezvous, Carl (David Hyde Pierce), an insecure, neurotic type. Carl's wife, Lee (Catherine Keener), is about to turn 41, is even more neurotic, and is planning to leave him (she is also having an affair with Calvin). Lee is a high-powered human resources VP at a major firm, and she apparently spends most of her day humiliating various employees by asking them inappropriate questions, making them stand on chairs, and throwing a plastic beach ball at them while making them recite all the countries in Africa.
Lee's sister, Linda (Mary McCormack), is a masseuse who is on the lookout for the right man and thinks she may have found him in Ed (Enrico Colantoni), whom she met on the Internet and still has not met in person. Ed claims to be a 22-year-old painter, but is actually a theater director in his late 30s who is putting on a small play called The Sound and the Fuhrer, a weird piece about Hitler starring a self-inflated young actor played by Nicky Katt.
The screenplay, written by Soderbergh friend Coleman Hough, alternates back and forth between the action in the Full Frontal story and the action in the Rendezvous story, which Soderbergh shot with traditional 35mm film. This visual and narrative division invites us to find thematic parallels between the two stories, but there are none to be found (or, at least, any that have emotional resonance), and watching the scenes from Rendezvous serve primarily to remind us how ugly the rest of the film is.
Full Frontal does have its moments, but they are isolated and unconnected, enjoyable in the way a single good passage is in an otherwise unreadable book. There's a good scene between Mary McCormack's Linda and a movie producer named Gus played by David Duchovny who's looking for a little something extra in his massage. There's also a funny scene in which David Hyde Pierce's Carl finds this his dog, Jango, has eaten the greater portion of a batch of hash brownies. The scenes with Nicky Katt are consistently amusing, although they are largely self-contained, seeming to bear no relation to anything else in the film.
Soderbergh packs the edges of the frame with silly star cameos, from Brad Pitt and director David Fincher on the movie set within Rendezvous, to Terence Stamp, star of Soderbergh's The Limey (1999), appearing on a plane and later in a hotel. The purpose of these cameos would seem to be ironic and subversive, since the film itself is a satire on Hollywood, but all it really does is continually remind us that, however much he wants to be, Soderbergh is no longer a struggling independent artiste.
When Full Frontal is over, you want to believe that it has all been a big joke. Yet, you get the sense that Soderbergh was completely serious, that he believes that he is achieving art by shooting on video and making $20-million movie stars do their own hair. It's refreshing to see a successful Hollywood director trying to get at something beneath the surface, but it's also distressing when said Hollywood director makes much better movies when he's working within the system, rather than against it.
Soderbergh should cherish the fact that he is the rare independent director who has managed to work with Hollywood's tools to make consistently interesting and original movies that bear a unique authorial stamp; rather than being sucked into the machine, he has made it work for him. Making a film like Full Frontal, which often feels like a graduate film student's senior thesis with the added bonus Julia Roberts' movie star presence, just goes to show that truly independent films spring from the minds of those outside the system, not from those who are just trying to pretend they are.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick