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Full Frontal (R)
 Official Site
Director:Steven Soderbergh
Producers:Scott Kramer and Gregory Jacobs
Written by:Coleman Hough
Cast:David Duchovny (Gus), Nicky Katt (Hitler), Catherine Keener (Lee), Mary McCormack (Linda), David Hyde Pierce (Carl), Julia Roberts (Francesca/Catherine), Blair Underwood (Calvin/Nicholas), Enrico Colantoni (Arty/Ed), Erika Alexander (Lucy)

Rating: out of 5

Full Frontalis such a triumph of style that you may overlook its substance. This is Steven Soderbergh’s 12th movie, in about as many years, and it is appropriate that this movie would issue from Miramax, the house that Soderbergh built with sex, lies, and videotape in 1989. His has been a career to be proud of. His seeming ease with several film genres evokes the breadth of interests that used to define a truly educated person.

Soderbergh has spoken of Full Frontal as the lovechild of sex, lies, and it’s not hard to see what it inherited. There’s sex, and there are lies, but most expecially, there’s videotape. A concentration on having us, the theater audience, watch the characters in Full Frontal as they either create movies or plays for others to watch, or watch others perform in them, produces that falling-down-the-rabbit-hole feeling. This is a veritable Saragossa Manuscript of cascading, and ultimately related, stories.

Because the dots of those narrative relationships aren’t fully connected in the beginning of the movie, it would be heartless to reveal much of the plot. But then again, there isn’t actually a lot of plot to spoil. Twenty-four hours in the lives of a bunch of characters who all live in L.A. and who are all invited to movie producer Gus Delario’s 40th birthday party. What there is a lot of, is characters. Characters who are fun to watch, being played by actors who make nary a misstep. What’s the last movie you saw where you could say that?

One explanation for the uniformly exceptional performances may be the level of responsibility Soderbergh expected from each of his stars. Much has been made of the no-kid-gloves treatment he told the actors to expect during the roughly three-week shoot. There were no limos, no trailers, and no craft services, plus they bore total responsibility for their “look,” doing their own hair, wardrobe, and makeup. (Note to JR: How right you were to choose acting.) I have to believe that making them responsible for so much of their characters allowed the actors to create characters they could inhabit so well.

Catherine Keener’s perfectly realized (yet again) rage-fueled corporate bitch, Lee, is a mass of contradictions. It’s interesting that she’s married to Carl, whom David Hyde Pierce plays as a man with a very clear sense of who he is. (I like “Frazier” as well as the next person, but it’s a shame that it’s Hyde Pierce’s claim to fame. Watch some of his film work. The man has a mortal lock on thoughtful, melancholy duty.) Blair Underwood and Julia Roberts are actors in a movie about an interview between a journalist and a movie actor who fall in love. Underwood is actually a three-fer here, as the actor who plays an actor playing an actor in Delario’s movie, Rendezvous. Enrico Colantoni is apprehensive over the opening of his play, The Sound And The Fuhrer, with Nicky Katt in the title role, and his imminent weekend getaway with a woman he met over the Internet. Masseuse Linda (McCormack) is apprehensive about the fancy Hollywood party her sister Lee is bringing her to and her Internet date. It’s a tense crowd, and none more so than deceptively laid-back Gus Delario (Duchovny), who just wants a release.

The opening of the movie gives you no idea of where you’re headed but an excellent idea of how you’ll get there—surfing on a wave of popular culture references. The first two minutes alone were loaded with so many film in-jokes my head was spinning, and it didn’t let up a whole lot. Too bad, because it causes the movie to occasionally devolve into the sort of spot-what-he’s-referencing game snarky-smart film students sometimes play. The pop-cult overload is there in cameo casting—Look! Is that the famous author or a look-alike? Look! A noted young director and the star of two of his ultra-popular movies! Look! A Miramax honcho! It’s there in the story, where character traits and even of plot lines from “The X-Files” are lifted wholesale. It’s there as reality TV meets the movies, when Roberts’ Francesca meets a charming and unexpected lighting guy from the crew.

As long as there are actors and movie fans, there’ll be circular movies about the industry. Many of these movie-movies are some of the finest work Hollywood has made (All About Eve, A Star Is Born,  and the more recent State And Main come to mind). Lately, however, there’s been an accelerating trend toward pop-culture cannibalism. Sure, it’s fun on our end  to recognize the origins of and inspirations for stuff in a TV show or movie. And on the writer/director end, it’s probably even a little stroke to the audience to show them that you’re a regular guy who watches “COPS” just like they do. But it’s a trend that can only lead to the sort of ugly scenario where that mythological beast devours its own tail. And in Full Frontal, with its issues of the mind-blowing expectations we place on love and our increasing reliance on voyeurism and gamesmanship as entertainment, it’s an unwelcome distraction.

So am I bitching because I didn’t like it? Nope. I liked it fine. I felt oh-so-clever and worthy as the next person, when the writer and the director borrowed from stuff that I, too, consume, on the screen. And I left the theater with the same knowing smile as the rest of the critics I attended with. I just figured Mr. Soderbergh would’ve gotten some playfulness out of his system with Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s Eleven. Not that there’s anything wrong with being playful, especially after the emotional heft of movies like Traffic and Kafka and my personal fave, King Of The Hill. All this pop-cult fingerpainting just seems like the work of a talent who’s aging backward. Yeah, like Mork and Mindy’s baby.

Notes: The soundtrack may be worth buying just to hear Blair Underwood’s performance of the rap, “Hue-Man’s Love Call,” written by D-Knowledge.

—Roxanne Bogucka


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Wait for video rental.

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