FULL FRONTAL

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Written by Coleman Hough

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

***
Reality has left the building...at least in FULL FRONTAL's hall of mirrors. The Dogme 95 manifesto claims that its directors will forsake the comforts of genre,  artificial lighting, sets, costumes and other tools of the Man  in order to get closer to the truth of their subjects. Grubbily shot on video (for the most part), FULL FRONTAL would look a lot different if not for the  widespread impact of THE CELEBRATION and Lars von  Trier's films. (It never quite achieves the  home movie look of THE CELEBRATION but gets pretty damn close.) Nevertheless, it wins up affirming that there's no way out of Hollywood, especially if you've become one of its most celebrated players. You can't return to Sundance and take back all those Oscar nominations. Thus, Soderbergh uses video to get to the essential artifice of his subject.

FULL FRONTAL includes a film-within-the-film, shot on 35mm and called RENDEZVOUS. In it, Nicholas (Underwood) is an actor being interviewed by Francesca (Roberts) while making an action film with Brad Pitt. (David Fincher plays the director, although according to the credits, he's not playing himself.) In the video portions, supposedly a documentary, a  frazzled journalist (Pierce) has a very bad day, while his wife (Keener), a vice-president of human resources, revels in her power to abuse people. A playwright lies about his age on the Internet and goes to Tucson for an encounter with a woman he "met" in a chat room, while the ludicrous play he's directing - THE SOUND AND THE FUHRER - looks destined to flop. All these threads are supposed to come together at an enormous 40th-birthday party thrown that evening by Gus (Duchovny), the producer of RENDEZVOUS.

Potentially, there's 3 different films in FULL FRONTAL: an expose of why we shouldn't believe what we see (a pretty sharp idea), a comedy of manners about Hollywood (not a bad idea) and an excuse for Soderbergh to show off how many celebrity friends he has (something I don't really want to watch.) Juggling   these different mode, it's most successful with the second one. The actor who plays Hitler in THE SOUND AND THE FUHRER (Nicky Katt) throws neurotic fits and complains  when  the actress who plays Eva Braun leaves because of his blood-drinking habit. Typecast again as a snarky bitch, Keener is just as amusing, while Pierce is quite funny as a man whose day is one long mishap, culminating when his dog overdoses on hash brownies. However, both RENDEZVOUS and FULL FRONTAL fit  equally recognizable genres:  the former is a romance, the latter a sitcom version of SHORT CUTS.

  Soderbergh doesn't miss a chance to show off what a Hollywood insider he is. Actor Jeff Garlin does a very convincing impression of  Miramax head honcho/Aspiring King Of New York/Tool Of Satan Harvey Weinstein  in several scenes. At first, I believed that Garlin was Weinstein and grew irritated by his self-serving cameos. (Of course, other characters make fun of Weinstein, but no one calls him "Harvey Scissorhands," my favorite nickname..)  Brad Pitt pops up in the credits as "Brad Pitt/himself." As an in-joke for  people who've followed Soderbergh's career well enough to remember THE LIMEY, Terence Stamp also drops by to reprise a few lines of dialogue and then show up in a hotel as "himself." Even so, the director sympathizes with the people who are on the margins of this world: the  hapless theater director, the  actor who's infuriated that black men can't kiss white women onscreen (a set-up for one of the funniest jokes), a masseuse (McCormack) who's never had a relationship that lasted longer than 3 months. If this sympathy is anything to go by, he thinks he's one of them.

Deep down, he may be, but  in the real world, he's made 3 major hits. FULL FRONTAL makes a stab at going back to his indie roots by using DV.  If New York's intrepid street bootleggers sneak their camcorders into the theater, tape FULL FRONTAL off the screen and press "LL FRONT" onto DVD-Rs, the film's look and feel might even be enhanced. The video segments have the texture of a 5th-generation dub, or even  Pixelvision, at their grainiest. (It's fitting that a song by former lo-fi kings Guided By Voices plays over the end credits.) Amidst the blur,  incidents and small gestures bleed from RENDEZVOUS into FULL FRONTAL. Unless you're asleep, you should be able to pick up on the clues. 

In FULL FRONTAL, video (despite its fuzziness) = film  =Hollywood. DV static is just a red herring. Soderbergh may expose this depressing equation, but he offers no clues about how to escape from it. (Here's a hint: don't get Julia Roberts to appear in your film, even if you use her "ironically." Perhaps you should even cast unknown actors. ) His diagnosis is inseparable from the quicksand he's stuck in. If he could find a way out of it, he'd deserve plenty of credit, but the implicit cynicism of FULL FRONTAL is more than a little facile. Even so, it has the courtesy to end on a generous, crowd-pleasing note. I'll honor this tone: if it's little more than a gritty-looking sitcom, it's a pretty entertaining one.