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FULL FRONTAL

2002, dir. Steven Soderbergh
101 min. Rated R.
Starring: David Hyde Pierce, David Duchovny, Catherine Keener, Julia Roberts.

Review by Noel Wood
I suppose I shouldn't fault Steven Soderbergh for wanting to experiment, but I'm starting to wonder just where his head is. The man who made his mark by rekindling interest in the indie film with 1989's SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE has gone on to have quite an interesting career. He made his mark with quirky films like KAFKA, KING OF THE HILL, UNDERNEATH, and SCHIZOPOLIS, before catching the eye of Hollywood with the 1998 Elmore Leonard adaptation (when everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Barry Levinson was doing Elmore Leonard adaptations) OUT OF SIGHT. That film, besides serving as a launching pad for some chick named Jennifer Lopez, led to a string of highly acclaimed directorial efforts for Soderbergh. THE LIMEY was a very well-received crime thriller, TRAFFIC and ERIN BROCKOVICH earned him the first dual directorial Oscar nomination in over 60 years, and OCEANS ELEVEN was both a critical and box office success. Everything was coming up roses, huh?

Then 2002 happened. While critics were split on his half-the-length remake of 1972's SOLARIS, they pretty much universally panned his movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie experiment FULL FRONTAL. I went in to this movie with an open mind, and walked out thinking "what a mess". Well, considering this was my 99 cent rental from the local video shack, I kinda just sat down for it and then stood up after it, but you get the general drift.

FULL FRONTAL stars about every actor who Robert Altman couldn't get to work for scale that day, including a bunch of castoffs from NBC TV series. Seriously. Blair Underwood, best known for his work on "L.A. Law" teams up with David Hyde Pierce of "Frasier" fame, Enrico Colantoni from "Just Shoot Me", Dina Spybey of "Men Behaving Badly", and "Cosby Show" alum Erika Alexander. Add to that group Fox TV stalwarts David Duchovny and Nicky Katt, and you've got a ready-for-prime-time ensemble going on. Also starring are Catherine Keener, Julia Roberts, Mary McCormack, Brad Pitt and his doppelganger Brad Rowe, and dozens of other performers. Terrence "Kneel Before Zod" Stamp is also in the movie, but for no good reason whatsoever except for the fact that he looks cool hanging out in the background.

The stories all seem unconnected. Lee is married to Carl and is contemplating leaving him while firing employees left and right, Carl is being fired from his magazine job for asking too many people what their porn name is; Linda is meeting strange guys in chatrooms and calling herself Ann, Arty is planning on meeting Ann under the guise of Ed once he wraps his Hitler play; Catherine, played by Francesca, is a character in a movie with Nicholas, played by Calvin, who is also sleeping with Lee; and everyone is planning on attending the birthday party of Gus, who is also known as Bill. Somewhere, somehow, all of this is supposed to connect, and the question comes to our mind: "what is a movie, and what is not?"

Okay, here's the problem with all of this: It doesn't feel like anything was accomplished in trying to tie any of these ends together. Everything seems to go in seperate directions, with nothing really tying it all together other than the fact that they all sort of know common people. There's nothing extremely clever or groundbreaking in how they are all interconnected. Even worse, none of the stories are all that interesting to begin with. I wanted to care about Carl, but every time they started making him interesting they'd cut away and focus on his much less interesting wife. There seems to be this air about Gus, like he's some big important somebody, but all I get from him is that he's a weird sex perv who gets all of five minutes of screen time. The movie within the movie within however many other movies (simply, the only scenes not shot on grainy digital handhelds with shitty lighting) isn't even something I'd ever care to see.

As the end nears, I was waiting for some real kicker to tie these events together, and it just never happens. The only story that ever really merits attention until the end is the one developing between Linda and Arty, and they don't have to interact to make it happen. Linda/Ann is so sweet and naive, while Arty/Ed seems like he's the one who is morally above everyone in his sphere of influence. And even with this storyline, the ending was so trite and Hollywood (and intentionally so, just to make a little jab at the industry by becoming just like it, or whatever the latest pretentious thing to do is out there.)

And that speaks volumes. The problem that so many filmmakers have when they try to slap Hollywood in the face with their movies is that they wind up making movies you'd have to be in Hollywood to really get to begin with. Your audience isn't going to get that Jerry Weintraub is yucking it up and Harvey Weinstein is calling himself Baron Von Hugecock, and even if they do, they're not going to care. Why should they? They want to be entertained. That's all a moviegoer wants. That's all the readers of this article want, ultimately, as well. That's why I don't sit around and make inside jokes that only a handful of people in "the know" are going to get just so that I can feel self-important and can deride people for not "getting" what I have to say. If I were to do that, you'd probably feel insulted, and rightly so. So when a filmmaker does it, regardless of whether or not they intend to slap the Big Time Movie Industry in the face, they usually wind up missing their mark and hitting the audience square in the jaw instead.

There are a lot of quirks in FULL FRONTAL that exemplify Soderbergh's style; for instance, his quick cuts during dialogue. But the funny thing is, partly because of the subject matter of the film, partly because they seem so forced, and probably mostly because of the fact that they're done with the low-quality digital camera parts, they come off more like self-parody than as a directorial trademark. In fact, in a lot of ways, the movie itself seems more like a parody of a critique of Hollywood than a serious effort to be one.

Comparing this movie to other movies that have explored similar subject matters, it's easy to see where it goes wrong. For instance, see Charlie Kaufman's ADAPTATION. ADAPTATION also plays on the whole idea that you never know what you're watching is a movie or a movie within a movie or whatever, but it does it with such a creative zeal that you're absolutely blown away. Where the movie sees itself lacking interest, it creates it, and makes no bones about what it's doing. For a more straightforward example, see Altman's THE PLAYER, where nobody is safe. Sure, it's a big "Fuck You" to Hollywood, but even the sympathetic characters are morally bankrupt assholes. In FULL FRONTAL, nothing ever really goes anywhere, nobody ever really becomes interesting, and as far as this reviewer is concerned, nothing really ever gets accomplished.

The saving grace of the film can't really be explained without too many spoilers, but is that they tie together the whole thing with the idea that "it's all a movie." Just keep in mind that at no point during the time between when you start watching the movie and stop watching the movie, You're still watching a movie. I'll leave it at that.

Also, as an aside, I'm wondering how many people walked out of the theater thinking they were in the wrong movie. You see, there's opening credits, but they're not for FULL FRONTAL. They're for "Rendezvous", the imaginary movie starring Blair Underwood and Julia Roberts' characters' characters. I can just imagine people getting up frantically and running to the theater managers trying to let them know that they spooled the wrong print. That makes me giggle, but not in a pretentious "I'm better than that" sort of way, which is the way that this film comes off at times.

Hopefully, Soderbergh now has this out of his system. As we're all aware, he's capable of way more than this. Steven's at his best when he's just telling a story, and hopefully he's realized that. His next directorial effort, however, looks to be yet another misstep. I mean, it's bad enough that he's succumbing to Sequel Mania, but couldn't you have really come up with a better title than OCEANS TWELVE?

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