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Full Frontal (Steven Soderbergh) 2002


    Full Frontal, the latest film from Steven Soderbergh, the American filmmaker who seems most stuck between the realms of independent genius and studio hack (or is that independent hack and studio genius?), has him directly confronting the disconnect between those two modes of his filmmaking. Set in Hollywood, and revolving around the people we hate who make the movies that we love, this movie, which was shot with a hand-held digital camera, is intercut with segments from Rendezvous, a similarly self-reflexive film within the film, which has been shot on actual celluloid with a formalistic treatment. This treatment sets up in the audience a questioning of reality that much of the dialogue scenes in the film explicitly and implicitly address. Besides the obvious use of two mediums, there are clever scenes like the one that shows us characters creating their “porno names” juxtaposed against the testimonials of a masseuse that actually uses an assumed name when working with her clients (and when she chats online). For a while, the movie hums along with a surprisingly offhand and chaotic style, and you think that it might be building to a genuinely revolutionary point, but it unfortunately loses itself along the way, and descends into a series of inconsistently giggle-worthy, but consistently empty skits.


    While watching Full Frontal, a host of inconsistencies crop up. It doesn’t help matters that the film-within-the-film Rendezvous isn’t for a moment believable as an actual Hollywood production (but then again, neither is the David Fincher-directed film-within-the-film-within-the-film). Its corny symbolism and dopey dialogue really only make sense in the context of those “non-movie” scenes that surround them. It seems to consist mostly of long dialogue sequences between an actor and a reporter discussing the state of the black man in mainstream American cinema. Such a stance coming from Steven Soderbergh placed in the mouth of Julia Roberts feels like some sort of apology, since neither of them has an excellent track record in their onscreen relationships with black actors. Full Frontal explicitly brings up Julia’s chaste romance with Denzel Washington in The Pelican Brief, but doesn’t mention the scene in Traffic where a young girl’s sexual encounter with a black drug dealer is presented as her worst imaginable offense. When it comes time to show a hot and heavy interracial sex scene between two of the characters, though, Soderbergh shifts his focus until it’s an abstraction, foisting a joke onto the audience that makes them question his sincerity. You start to question the reality of the framing device as well though, since its relationships are as constructed as the ones in the movie, and when it starts pushing toward a big Hollywood ending, Soderbergh attempts to salvage everything by telling you that it’s all a movie and that none of it mattered.


    This move seems calculated to piss off the audience, and I imagine that for many people it worked, but mostly I was just left disappointed that a director who seems as perceptive as Soderbergh couldn’t make a more analytical statement about the reality of movies. Instead, he simply asks us to let him off the hook for even attempting to tell a story in such an inadequate medium and criticizes our naiveté for getting involved in the process of watching this one. I suppose that sort of fourth-wall shattering moment is supposed to be wild, and in a dramatic Hollywood film it might be, but since this film announces itself so loudly as an experimental, quirky indie, you can’t help but expect more of a result from the director’s experiments. That’s not to say that Full Frontal is a total wash. I found several of its comic skits to be funny, most notably those involving Catherine Keener, who transcends her clichéd bitchy studio exec character’s limitations here with her performance. She’s the one thing in the movie that really feels like it’s operating without a net. Nicky Katt’s scenes where he plays an actor impersonating Hitler, however, seemed as funny to me as genocide. Many viewers’ reactions will probably differ greatly here, though, since the movie throws so many disparate elements together. It’s as difficult to imagine someone who will find nothing to like in Full Frontal as it is to conceive of someone who can embrace everything it offers. It’s a film that’s too wildly pieced together to inspire either knee-jerk admiration or derision.


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Jeremy Heilman