Neither as bad as some critics have claimed, nor nearly as important as the film itself thinks it is, Full Frontal is the sort of incredibly self-indulgent work that — in terms of mainstream film — could come from a heavy-hitter filmmaker like Steven Soderbergh. A lesser director would have only received blank looks from a studio if he presented them with this package. With Soderbergh, they probably decided it was worth their while to indulge him, in the hopes of getting a Traffic or an Ocean’s 11 from him next time. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Soderbergh could deliver an impressive cast to bolster the box-office for this brazenly uncommercial movie before word of mouth could kill it. The truth is that it’s the sort of film you’re apt to bump into on the indie circuit, with a cast of no names and quasi-has-beens. That’s to say that its Chinese puzzle-box construction (film within a film within a film) and strained artiness only seem unusual because of the names involved and because it’s not the sort of movie you usually see at the multiplex. The plot is almost impossible to synopsize, and it really doesn’t matter anyway. All the viewer really needs to know is that a diverse group of people are working their way toward attending the 40th birthday of Gus Delario (David Duchovny). Somehow in this, there’s a subplot about an online romance, the production of a post-modernist play about Hitler (easily the funniest thing in the film), a movie being filmed with Julia Roberts (who plays both the character in the movie and the actress playing the character), a disintegrating marriage, cross-references about letters in red envelopes . . . ah, to hell with it, it’s impossible to explain fully. I doubt even Soderbergh understands it all. (I’d pay good money to have someone explain Terence Stamp’s presence in the film, or, for that matter, just who his character is.) We can tell, however, that it must be very important. All the supposedly “real” footage is in ultra-grainy digital video (one long stretch is even completely out of focus) shot with automatic iris lenses, no tripod, and dialogue just brimming with banalities. It’s a lot like a Dogme film — except that Soderbergh doesn’t mind playing fast and loose with that concept. Its experimental structure isn’t all that experimental. Even its deliberately artificial ending, which pulls the rug out from under the “real” parts of the film, has been done before. Jerry Lewis did something like this back in 1964 in The Patsy, and Michael Sarne did it better and more elaborately in 1968 in Joanna. Even so, Full Frontal isn’t without its merits. Nicky Katt’s post-modern Hitler is a delight. The parody aspects of the film that Julia Roberts is in are often on target, though her other scenes are among the weakest in the film. Nearly all of the scenes with Catherine Keener and David Hyde Pierce work on one level or another. The film wanders off into a pretty strange area when the David Duchovny character offers Mary McCormick $500 for a little extra attention during a massage. It’s an odd, kinky scene — and one that, judging by the “evidence” under Mr. Duchovny’s sheet, suggests a degree of wishful thinking on the actor’s part. All in all, it seems to be Soderbergh’s attempt at creating a Short Cuts of his own. Unfortunately, what he’s ended up with looks and feels like a half-baked John Cassavettes film where everyone improvises their dialogue. It’s worth a look, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting to take a second look.
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