Full Frontal

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Since the release of Erin Brockovich two years ago, Steven Soderbergh’s reputation has evolved from "offbeat independent filmmaker" to "Hollywood’s latest golden boy." Whether this represents a positive change is certainly debatable, but if the director’s latest release is any indication, his experimental streak is still alive and kicking — albeit with mixed results.

The prolific Soderbergh squeezed the production of Full Frontal between two big-budget remakes, last year’s Ocean’s 11 and the forthcoming Solaris (due at Christmas). Shot mostly with consumer-grade digital video cameras, the ensemble comedy has been described by its director as an "unauthorized sequel" to his first film, Sex, Lies and Videotape. But while sex, lies and videotape all figure into the film, Full Frontal is actually closer in spirit to Soderbergh’s 1996 exercise in absurdist comedy Schizopolis, favoring mind games and non-sequiturs over linear storytelling.

Not that there’s no story at all. Movie producer Gus (David Duchovny) is throwing himself a 40th birthday party and most of the characters in the film are invited, including the stars of his latest production, Rendezvous. Scenes from Rendezvous are scattered throughout Full Frontal, though viewers may not realize it right away. (Hint: pay close attention to the captioned photos that introduce the characters at the beginning of the movie.) It soon becomes apparent that, like Magnolia and Short Cuts before it, this is one of those everyone-and-everything-in-L.A.-is-connected movies.

Gus’s masseuse Linda (Mary McCormack) is the sister of Lee (Catherine Keener), who is married to writer Carl (David Hyde Pierce), who has co-written a play starring Nicky Katt as Hitler. (Katt has little or nothing to do with the rest of the movie, but his re-imagining of the Fuhrer as a sensitive hipster provides some of Full Frontal‘s funniest moments.) Fortunately, the linkages are mostly played for laughs rather than passing themselves off as deeply meaningful insights into the cosmic connectivity of all things.

Given its down-and-dirty production, its not surprising that Full Frontal turns out to be a hit-and-miss affair. It never quite gels conceptually, and for every inspired bit of absurdity, there’s a lame piece of improvisational noodling. An appreciation for show-biz insider humor helps; when a movie exec reveals his uproarious "porn name," the gag is even funnier when you realize he’s meant to be Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein. For audiences outside the Hollywood loop, however, the appeal is likely to be limited.

The movie’s biggest problem, however, is that it looks like crap. Much has been made of the fact that most of Full Frontal was shot with the same cameras Joe and Jane Sixpack can pick up at their local Wal-Mart. This is an interest tidbit for the publicists to push, but it’s hard to get excited about the results. Sickly shades of yellow abound, the actors look blotchy and pale, and Soderbergh’s fascination with blown-out sunlight is rapidly becoming an illness. It’s troubling how quickly the whole "it looks bad on purpose" aesthetic seems to be catching on. There have been great advances in digital technology recently, and a handful of good-looking movies have resulted, but when the man who made gorgeous pictures like Out of Sight and The Limey starts turning out eyesores, something is terribly wrong. What makes it especially jarring in the case of Full Frontal is the movie-within-the-movie Rendezvous, which is shot on 35 mm and looks great. Soderbergh isn’t the first big name director to get carried away with the digital revolution, but he’s one who should know better than to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Scott Von Doviak