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Vanity Fare

Steven Soderbergh experiments at the audience’s expense in Full Frontal.



In the tradition of Beethoven’s jingles for anti-itch powder, Renoir’s velvet dogs-at-poker period and Wolfgang Puck’s macaroni & cheese with weiners, director Steven Soderbergh has made Full Frontal.

It’s a sad development, because Soderbergh seemed like a man with such purpose. He’s been the most important American director of the last five years, moving seamlessly and rapidly from cutting-edge projects like The Limey and Traffic to three spectacular renditions of genre pictures: Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich and Ocean’s Eleven. He seemed driven, focused and completely cured of the pretensions that inspired him to make Schizopolis, an incomprehensible 1997 picture in which his own clueless acting wasn’t even the most offensive ingredient.

But Soderbergh said he felt the need to work on a less structured, regimented shoot. He decided to make a picture written by his playwright friend Coleman Hough. He apparently wasn’t repulsed by the idea of making a movie about movies, and he thought it would be fun to spend 18 days shooting mostly with a handheld video camera and minimal direction. He said he thought he could film an untainted slice of life.

He thought wrong.

Soderbergh may have made the film as an exercise in cinematic purity, but Full Frontal is more self-indulgent than eating a hot fudge sundae in the front seat of a speeding Cadillac Escalade while trampling protected grasslands on the way to shoot six endangered white rhinos for their ivory horns. It’s both confusing and directionless as it tells a tale with no apparent goal other than the telling. Most of all, it simply seems like a waste of Soderbergh’s valuable time.

The story links a crew of friends and relatives over the course of one day in L.A. Julia Roberts, with both her hair and her charisma cut short, is an actress starring with Calvin (Blair Underwood) in a movie about an interracial romance. He’s having an affair with Lee (Catherine Keener), a strangely mean executive whose sister (Mary McCormack) is a lonely Internet dater. Lee’s husband Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a mousy journalist and sometime screenwriter, is among those invited to a birthday party for a shady movie producer (David Duchovny) who’s making a movie co-written by Carl.

It’s hard to evaluate the acting here, since so little of it seems to have been thought out more than five seconds in advance. Much of the dialogue is improvised, and Soderbergh falls into the classic Robert Altman trap of trusting improvisation to actors who are too goddamn dumb to balance a checkbook, let alone write their own lines.

None of these characters has anything resembling an arc, and there’s dissonance everywhere. Roberts is dull, McCormack seems lost, Pierce is whiny and Keener spins another variation on the agitating jackass she played in both Your Friends and Neighbors and Being John Malkovich (she chucks an inflatable world globe at her employees and asks them to name the countries of Africa for some unfathomable reason).

Soderbergh and Hough scatter seeds of quirkiness throughout the film, but very few of them take root. The best is from underrated actor Nicky Katt (so good in The Limey), who plays a terribly self-involved actor in a play about Hitler called The Sound and the Führer.

It’s quickly obvious that Full Frontal is going nowhere. In one interesting bit of irony, the film in which Roberts and Underwood’s characters are starring appears to be every bit as tedious and uninvolving as this one. Soderbergh and Hough scratch on a few common themes of loneliness and love here, but there’s simply no direction to make us care about the proceedings. Who thought we’d ever say that about a Soderbergh film?

I don’t know why they’re called vanity projects. There’s nothing pretty about them.