In `Full Frontal,' Soderbergh exposes a rag-tag Hollywood

Colantoni, Hyde Pierce are rare bright lights

Movie Reviews

August 02, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC



Full Frontal is one of those desperately with-it creations that may yet give the term "independent film" a bad name.

This return to low-budget, seat-of-the-frayed-pants moviemaking for Steven Soderbergh, who helped create the whole indie-film craze with sex, lies and videotape (1989), has the superficial chic and callow experimentalism of that movie (to my mind, an inexplicable contemporary classic) without the modicum of clarity and craftsmanship that made it bearable.

This one's got a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie, a mix of scripted dialogue, improvisation and interviews, ugly digital-video footage combined with glossy celluloid (for the within-a-movie-within-a-movie part), and a roster of Los Angelenos who are involved in silly creative enterprises or stridently oppressive businesses when they are not merely self-involved.

The various strands should cohere like a parabola - but don't. You're left grasping for threads to follow, and finding them only in isolated performances by Enrico Colantoni and David Hyde Pierce.

In the movie-within-a-movie, Julia Roberts gets to reprise her off-screen advocacy of Denzel Washington playing a reporter interviewing a rising black star (Blair Underwood). In another part of the movie, she gets to echo her off-screen marriage to a cameraman by connecting with a clean-cut young technician who once worked on a stage production with her.

Catherine Keener, a courageous, increasingly misguided actress, tests the fringes of the despicable yet again, this time as a human-resources director who humiliates employees during their discharge interviews. Mary McCormack plays her sister, a highly professional masseuse - one of many specialized occupations that should be sidelined until Seinfeld goes out of syndication.

And Nicky Katt overstays his welcome with a too-hip-to-live send-up of an egotistical actor assaying the role of Adolf Hitler. Katt can be an innovative actor (I think he's done his best work on TV's Boston Public), but he's no Dick Shawn - his deadpan can grow too dead, and his comedy here runs on gastric juices that eat through the already slender membrane of the movie.

Many fans have rushed to treat Soderbergh as a cinematic deity. With films like Out of Sight and Erin Brockovich, he showed he could use independent attitude and dexterity to enliven mass entertainment, and with The Limey, he demonstrated an appetite for hard-boiled experimentalism in taut entertainment forms akin to '60s movies like Point Blank and Get Carter.

But Traffic was just a superficial precis of the brilliant British miniseries Traffik (judge for yourself when they both play on the Sundance Channel this month), and Ocean's Eleven lacked the personality and even the minimal plausibility of the Rat Pack original.

It's too early for Soderbergh to be drawing on audience good will with an au courant grab-bag like Full Frontal.

Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) was never the icon that Soderbergh has become, but as dead-end L.A.-set experiments go, his TimeCode was more fun and even more experimental than Full Frontal. (Figgis shot four concurrent pieces of action in 90-minute digital takes and had them projected simultaneously in their own separate quarters of the screen.)

What's disheartening about both movies is that they strip Los Angeles in general and the movie world in particular of their usual facades - and emerge with a numbing triviality. Presumably the same petty humiliations, put-downs and disappointments occur everywhere.

But in the washed-out L.A. of these movies, dashed human hopes seem as inevitable as smog. Movies about lost human connections shouldn't reduce everything to transactions.

In Full Frontal, with few exceptions, the characters are more like vectors driving the action to cliched epiphanies (for example, a woman is traumatized by a corpse as an adult, just as she was as a child). And there's a ridiculously unearned mellow ending.

The highly publicized rules that Soderbergh distributed to the actors (every cast member mentions them on talk shows, and they're even printed in the press kit) are determined to create the impression that this production was akin to Dogme95 or InDigEnt movies. (Indeed, Tadpole's InDigEnt editor, Susan Littenberg, was an assistant editor on this one.) They dictate that actors take care of their own food, transportation, makeup and so on.

But the star system must still exist. David Duchovny is barely on-screen as a mysteriously low-key producer. (It's a Duchovny specialty - you wonder, is this character smarmy or merely minimalist?) True, the action builds to his 40th birthday party. But why does he get billing over Enrico Colantoni of TV's Just Shoot Me, who plays three crucial roles - as a co-writer of a script with Underwood, as the writer-director of Katt's Hitler show, and the Internet lover of McCormack?

Colantoni, who showed he could be an inspired big-screen comedian in GalaxyQuest, at least contributes some accessible human reactions to the nuttiness surrounding him.

The only real oomph here comes from Hyde Pierce as Keener's long-suffering husband. (She abuses him and needs him.) A writer for Los Angeles magazine, he has wit, intelligence, compassion and a half-amusing, half-agitating self-doubt that stems from being a worrywart with a conscience in a world of aggressive narcissists.

Full Frontal is packed with creative and personal defeats, but the one time you feel any of them is when Hyde Pierce meets with his editor. This bluff, manly fellow judges his writers by how they drink beer. In this film, Soderbergh appears to judge the actors by how well they spew or swallow bile.

Full Frontal

Starring Julia Roberts, Blair Underwood, David Duchovny, David Hyde Pierce, Catherine Keener and Mary McCormack

Drected by Seven Soderbergh

Rated R

Time 107 minutes

Released by Miramax

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