With “Full Frontal,” it’s as if Steven Soderbergh has willfully decided to bring his extraordinary winning streak to an end. Arid, self-consciously arty and emotionally uninvolving, this stab at back-to-basics filmmaking after his rise to the top from “Out of Sight” and “The Limey” to “Erin Brockovich,” “Traffic” and “Ocean’s Eleven” will flummox many of the director’s admirers and bore the general public. Misleadingly provocative title, director’s rep and presence of Julia Roberts in the ensemble cast will stir initial interest, but B.O. prospects beyond sophisticate-drawing urban situations are blah.
The last time Soderbergh made this sort of off-the-rails film was in 1996, with the little-seen “Schizopolis,” when the young director’s three commercial underachievers in the wake of “sex, lies, and videotape” made it unclear where his career was headed. But while “Schizopolis,” however ill-defined, felt like a guerrilla-style anarchic goof, “Full Frontal” constitutes a more conventionally “experimental” exercise involving a film-within-a-film, mixed formats and web-of-life connections both made and missed.
After an Oscar and three big hits in a row, Soderbergh was in a position to do anything he wanted, and what he chose was to shoot something fast, cheap and, certainly by Hollywood standards, austere. Working with a script by poet-playwright Coleman Hough, helmer shot under his d.p. moniker of Peter Andrews — mostly in long takes on digital video with a Canon XL-1S — for 18 days on natural settings with no lighting. He also mapped out his own set of dogma, which stipulated that cast members must drive to the locations themselves, provide their own wardrobe and makeup, do without trailers and customary catering, and be ready to improvise.
Unfortunately, the artistic intent and production methods are far more interesting than what ends up onscreen. Despite the fact the performers seem alive to the occasion, the material is almost defiantly audience unfriendly, the approach dramatically stifling; pic is peopled by characters trying to cope with mostly adverse change under the gaze of a pitiless lens that makes them look like little more than specimens of humanity.
Soderbergh introduces his cast of principals dryly, often amplified by v.o. “interviews,” in a manner that quickly feels aggravatingly academic. Plush 35mm stock is accorded a fictional Hollywood movie called “Rendezvous,” which comes complete with faux front credits and has famed actress Francesca (Julia Roberts) playing a journalist named Catherine conducting an interview on a New York-to-L.A. flight with TV actor Calvin (Blair Underwood) in the role of Nicholas.
Set in L.A. over a 24-hour period beginning on a Friday, “Full Frontal” shifts into unappetizing digital to pick up the remaining characters, whose tenuous connections to one another come into focus only later on. High-strung executive Lee (Catherine Keener) leaves a note on the breakfast table announcing finis to her marriage to husband Carl (David Hyde Pierce), then stages elaborate games for personnel she is firing at the office. Carl, who doesn’t find the note in the morning, proceeds to get axed from his job at Los Angeles magazine (by a boss cameoed by “Ocean’s Eleven” producer Jerry Weintraub), before getting the double whammy when he arrives back home.
Meanwhile, “Nicholas” has received what he believes is a love letter from “Catherine” on the plane, and when they arrive in L.A., they proceed directly to the location of a film-within-the-film-within-the-film (at the now defunct “Red” restaurant) so “Nicholas” can report to work on the major action film that may rep his big break; playing themselves here are Brad Pitt, as the picture’s star, and director David Fincher.
Injected into the mix is Nicky Katt as a young actor playing Adolf Hitler in a little theater production of a new play called “The Sound and the Fuhrer.” Despite scoring some easy laughs in essaying the artistic differences of the participants, this whole strain of the film is rendered preposterous by the tenor of the play itself, which depicts Hitler as something very close to a Sensitive Modern Guy, albeit an egomaniacal one, dealing with “control issues.”
Then there’s Linda (Mary McCormack), Lee’s sister, a masseuse in a BevHills hotel spa who’s trying to meet a good man and, finally, film producer Gus (David Duchovny), whose 40th birthday party at the hotel Friday night marks the occasion that will bring all the characters together.
Up to the climax, the majority of scenes involves just two characters, a device that proves only slightly less tiresome than the single-take coverage style that, in this instance, serves to sap energy from the proceedings rather than juicing them up. The visual quality of the digital work is so unattractive — flared lights, grainy textures, bad balance and unviewable faces abound — that, after the likes of this, “Bamboozled,” “Tadpole” and most of the Danish Dogme films, one feels like boycotting all further digitally shot theatrical features until further notice.
By the time the party ends for tragic reasons, Lee’s simply stated wish, “I just want this day to be over,” is a sentiment most viewers will readily apply to the movie itself.
Soderbergh has made his career one of the most stimulating to follow among modern American directors because he is constantly shifting gears, an example that many other A-listers would do well to follow. But “Full Frontal” doesn’t feel any more personal than his bigger films; on the evidence thus far, Soderbergh is most effective applying his distinctive touch and versatile talents to more mainstream material, rather than shooting off in odd directions on quirky little projects. The use of different visual formats, the character “interview” device, the highly noticeable jump cuts and the deliberate audience-distancing all seem mannered and affected, and no ideas are communicated that haven’t been expressed more cogently and expressively elsewhere.
Evidently given great focus as well as considerable latitude, the actors uniformly seem deeply into the exercise, even if the film’s limitations prevent the realization of full and interesting characters. All the same, Hyde Pierce creates a credible and touching portrait of a profoundly insecure man, and McCormack, despite having been photographed in ways that only intermittently provide a good look at her face, registers some nice human moments as well.
Terence Stamp fleetingly appears twice, once in the plane and again at the hotel, in a jokey reprise of his leading role in “The Limey.”