Full Frontal

on August 02, 2002 by Wade Major
   Success might nearly have spoiled Rock Hunter but it surely won't spoil Steven Soderbergh. On the heels of his three most commercially successful efforts to date--Oscar winners "Erin Brockovich" and "Traffic" along with "Ocean's Eleven"--Soderbergh has returned to his independent roots, roughing it with a low-budget comedy-drama shot mostly on digital video and edited on an Apple Macintosh with Final Cut Pro software. The resulting movie, which Soderbergh has called "A movie about movies for people who love movies," is precisely that--a very "inside" look at the Hollyweird lifestyle, adapted by Coleman Hough from her own play and laced by Soderbergh with cameos and inside references to all manner of films old and new...including his own. There's even a beautifully shameless jab at the very executive whose company is releasing the picture that's sure to elicit uncontrollable guffaws among showbizites. In simplest terms, it's a delight.

   Trapped somewhere between Altman's "The Player" and Godard's "Contempt," "Full Frontal's" ensemble narrative at first appears to be a seemingly disjointed series of stories about the usual Hollywood types with all the usual Hollywood neuroses. There's the unhappily-married loser journalist (David Hyde Pierce) and his sexually unsatisfied mid-level executive wife (Catherine Keener), the blissfully cynical movie star (Julia Roberts) and her libidinous upstart co-star (Blair Underwood), the self-absorbed no-name stage actor (Nicky Katt) determined to put his own unmistakable imprint on Adolf Hitler and, at the center of it all, an enigmatic producer named Gus (David Duchovny) around whom this small solar system of minor planets form their wobbly orbits.

   As the stories connect and diverge, the movie takes on a variety of shapes, a trajectory that allows it to come to a climax without coming to a point. But that's hardly a bad thing. The point of the film seems to be that nothing ever really comes to a point. Life goes on. People change. Things evolve. In a certain sense, it's an embracing of the avant-garde filmmakers' mantra--the idea that it's more about the process than the result, that experimentation is its own justification, independent of the results.

   About the only thing that makes the movie look more substantive than it is in terms production value is the presence of Julia Roberts. But Roberts, like the rest of the film's cast, received no special treatment, forfeited her usual amenities and worked for scale. Shot for little more than $2 million over the course of a whirlwind 18 days, resorting to actual film only for the "movie-within-the-movie," "Full Frontal" was nothing if not a labor of love.

   Film history is littered, of course, with such efforts, most of which never see their love reciprocated by the audience. But "Full Frontal" should change that. It's a liberating experience for both the makers and the audience, though audiences might not come to this realization quite so easily or willingly. It's a picture that can, at times, be uncomfortable, voyeuristic and spontaneous in a fashion unseen since the heyday of Godard and Cassavetes. But for every twitch, there's a laugh followed by a shriek, a shudder, a titter and a quiver. Not everyone will feel the breeze blowing up their collective façade, but to the elect few who do, the real meaning of the movie's title should become abundantly clear. Starring David Duchovny, Nicky Katt, Catherine Keener, Mary McCormack, David Hyde Pierce, Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Coleman Hough. Produced by Scott Kramer and Gregory Jacobs. A Miramax release. Drama. Rated R for language and some sexual content. Running time: 106 min

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