ACCEPTING A PALME D'OR FOR SEX, LIES, AND videotape at Cannes in 1989, Steven Soderbergh quipped, probably only half in jest, that it was all downhill from there. Soderbergh was 26 years old, and his subsequent career has passed through moments -- Kafka, Underneath and Schizopolis -- when those words have seemed either prophetic or self-fulfilling. That said, who knew that the man rightly credited with pioneering a new golden age of independent film would later surface as a major Hollywood romantic, churning out bold, literate, elegant studio movies -- Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven -- of a kind that hasn't been common in mainstream American cinema since the 1930s and '40s? It would be nice to think that more boats will rise on Soderbergh's tide, but right now I can't think of another American director who's crossed over so handily from the idiosyncratic into the mainstream and, perhaps more significantly, back again.
Soderbergh's career pattern is unique, and so is his attitude. Where others would sit tight on their studio laurels and watch the money roll in, he waltzes off on a modestly budgeted adventure in guerrilla filmmaking. With stars, of course, but they have to bring their own wardrobe and do their own makeup without benefit of trailers. ("If you need to be alone a lot," Soderbergh stipulated in a rule sheet sent to the cast of his new movie, "you're pretty much screwed.") Soderbergh now commands enough clout and loyalty from his actors that for Full Frontal -- a fanciful tale of 24 hours in the lives of nine lost souls rooting around trendy L.A. for human connection -- he's been able to talk Brad Pitt and several industry wheels (David Fincher and Jerry Weintraub among them) into bit parts, and Julia Roberts into a wig that looks like a mangy knockoff of Jane Fonda's 'do in Klute. Roberts is key to the movie-within-a-movie conceit: She plays Francesca, an actress playing Catherine, a Los Angeles magazine journalist (we won't take it personally that an empty L.A. Weekly rack makes a cameo appearance) who's writing a feature on a cocksure black actor named Nicholas, who's played by Calvin, who's played by Blair Underwood in a slyly ambiguous departure from his holy television demeanor.
Made either out of Soderbergh's fabled unease with success or his determination to continue doing what he did as a struggling unknown a decade ago -- in other words, whatever he pleases -- Full Frontal is, for better and worse, a schizopolis all its own. Catherine and Nicholas' story is shot in glossy 35mm; the rest of the cast appears in digital. The idea is to distinguish between the real and the screen-real, but the mostly hand-held DV sequences (shot by Soderbergh, masquerading again in the credits as Peter Andrews) look awful, and they dominate the movie. Blurry and gray and stripped of the lush romanticism of Soderbergh's recent films, Full Frontal is hard to watch. Which is a waste of a stellar ensemble: Catherine Keener, for example, extending her ball-buster résumé as a corporate type who works off her frustrations by humiliating fired employees while also trying to leave her loving husband, a nerdy journalist and screenwriter played by David Hyde Pierce, and bullying her sister (Mary McCormack), a hotel masseuse and desperate Internet dater.
Soderbergh has said that if he were making sex, lies, and videotape today, it would look like Full Frontal. Part love story and part Hollywood satire, his new feature, like his first, aspires to catch the Zeitgeist of a generation (his own, again) in free fall. Not much has changed, apparently, though the movie is lighter of heart and freer of form than sex, lies, and videotape, which for all its insights suffered from the portentousness of youth. Even when Soderbergh bites the hand that feeds by introducing a very funny Harvey Weinstein clone (Miramax, which also released sex, lies, and videotape, is the distributor for Full Frontal), it's really more of a hickey. Full Frontal grew out of a series of scenes written from life by Coleman Hough, an old friend of Soderbergh. The director added voice-overs taken from "interviews" conducted with the actors about their characters, and gave the film its frame. Though there are scenes of great delight -- Underwood serenading Roberts with a rap piece about being black in Hollywood and some wonderful uproar provided by Nicky Katt as an actor playing Hitler in one of those godawful fringe plays that so often pass for theater in L.A. -- the movie remains fragmented, elliptical and overplotted to the point of being hard to track. Still, it's worth hanging in for the finish, a birthday party for Gus (David Duchovny), the producer of the film and the one person they're all linked to. Then Soderbergh pulls off a delicious trick, a gesture of pure, tender, unabashed movie love that makes up for everything.
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GROUP, A MOCK DOCUMENTARY BY SEATTLE-based filmmakers Marilyn Freeman and Anne de Marcken, invites you to spend 106 minutes with an all-woman therapy group whose most vocal member is an obese, blue-haired amputee and cancer survivor (Nomy Lamm) with a boyfriend in gender transition. Don't roll your eyes: The movie is not one of those whiny, victim-wimmin-make-movies group hugs so beloved of feminist film festivals, though it could be parsed that way if you're not paying close attention. Nor is it The Bob Newhart Show, though that wouldn't be a bad thing, and actually the movie is pretty funny now and then without in any way demeaning its subjects -- eight troubled women sweating through 21 weekly sessions under the wing of a serene but tough therapist. Only the therapist, a Southern California professor and shrink, is real. The rest are actors and luminaries of the Pacific Northwest girl-band and lesbian scene, playing, among others, a Christian nurse (Tony Wilkerson) struggling to keep love alive for an amnesiac paraplegic fiancé who was no picnic before he crashed his car; a homophobic, middle-aged stiff with Dame Edna glasses (Vicki Hollenburg); a snickering, hostile lesbian rocker with intimacy issues (Lola Rock N' Rolla); and a prissy control freak with a father problem (Carrie Brownstein of the band Sleater-Kinney).
This is risky territory, and ripe for caricature and cliché. As you'd expect from the first feature-length production of a new-media studio with the rather wince-making name of Wovie, Group bristles with self-conscious method. Yet the experimentalism serves its subject rather than the other way about. Freeman and de Marcken, who were inspired by their own experiences in therapy, jettisoned their original script in favor of an improvisational process not unlike that of the British director Mike Leigh, in which the actors spend months generating histories for their characters and meet only on the set, where they improvise in much the way a successful process of therapy is improvised. For most of the movie we see the women, on a screen split six ways, as they react to one another (and themselves) with anger, disbelief, contempt, detachment and, as time goes on, a degree of empathy. The camera pulls back to show the cameras that made the movie, which may be one too many meta-gestures. Some psychobabble ("We're all trying to be who we are") is inevitable, but somehow or other the thing works, largely because the acting, though primarily reactive, invests the movie with enough immediacy and specificity to turn the most excruciating banality into an original thought. It won't surprise anyone that by the end a fundamentalist Christian and a lesbian amputee discover they have more in common than they could have imagined. It's the way they get there that satisfies.
FULL FRONTAL | Directed by STEVEN SODERBERGH | Written by COLEMAN HOUGH | Produced by SCOTT KRAMER and GREGORY JACOBS | Released by Miramax Films | Citywide
GROUP | Written and directed by MARILYN FREEMAN and ANNE DE MARCKEN | Produced by FREEMAN, DE MARCKEN and MARGERY B. BROWN | Released by Artistic License Films | At Laemmle's Fairfax Cinemas