Released in Australia without any fanfare, Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal is an odd and intriguing piece. Shot in less than three weeks, the film mixes the now classic hallmarks of independent, low budget cinema – hand-held camerawork, a brutal video texture, and actorly improvisation – with big stars (such as Julia Roberts), sections in glossy 35 millimetre film, and the backing of Miramax.
Soderbergh has unwisely presented it as a loose sequel to his debut, sex, lies, and videotape (1989). Although Full Frontal rambles through many topics – modern love, race relations, Los Angeles phoniness, sexual alienation, show-business ethics – it is hard to locate a dramatic spine.
But, although it ends up nowhere terribly satisfying, Full Frontal does offer a strangely compelling ride. The cast is certainly committed: Catherine Keener again sulks in eternal disappointment, David Hyde Pierce oozes neurotic angst, David Duchovny is appropriately slimy as a Hollywood producer. All the characters move in and around the spiritually empty world of mainstream filmmaking – a milieu which obviously prompts uneasy feelings in Soderbergh.
But he is not the only auteur involved with this experiment. Screenwriter Coleman Hough is variously a poet, performance artist and self-proclaimed 'dating expert' – indeed, the release of the film in America was co-ordinated with a special internet seminar dispensing her advice on modern relationships. Somewhere, lurking underneath all the surface cynicism, is Hough's disarmingly optimistic and romantic view of human connection.
Between them, Soderbergh, Hough and the cast steer this material towards a very familiar and fashionable kind of digital cinema. It becomes a brittle comedy of manners about the games people play with each other. Action quickly bogs down for psychobabble, the ad-lib dialogue riffing on misunderstandings, lies and evasions. Some lines are hilarious and memorable, like "I'm taking a swim in Lake Me" or "Anyone who's offended at drinking blood obviously doesn't drink blood".
As in Short Cuts (1993) or Magnolia (1999), the various meandering threads of the plot cross whenever characters bump into each other at parties or on various assignations. This sort of comedy depends on mobility and a constant shuffling of the characters – hence the predilection for occupations like journalism, massage, or job recruiting.
However, there isn't much shape to this mosaic, and it runs out of steam long before its token catastrophe arrives. Much of its running time is devoted to snippets from two imaginary works – a film-within-the film (titled Rendezvous) and a zany, postmodern play about Hitler (The Sound and the Fuhrer). As often happens in movies that feature such conceits, these pastiches are heavily rigged for comic and metaphoric effect, and quickly become absurdly unbelievable.
Soderbergh's very worst moments are his cute, self-reflexive touches. Almost forty years after Fellini's Otto e mezzo (1963), Soderbergh still thinks it's a radical jolt for audiences to see the behind-the-scenes machinery of a film crew, or be confronted with juxtapositions of 'real' actors against the fictive part they are playing.
But it will take more than these paltry tricks for Soderbergh to resolve his evident bad faith over being part of the Hollywood machine.
© Adrian Martin December 2002