After going from esoteric art house darling to Oscar-winning mainstream mogul without losing his soul, it was probably inevitable that Steven Soderbergh would eventually make an industry farce -- and "Full Frontal" is the consummate ironic marriage of his two worlds.
The cinematic equivalent of an Escher painting, it's movie within a movie within a movie within a movie that keeps folding in on itself. Low-budget ($2 million) but awash in big names (Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, David Duchovny), it's also a joke within a joke within a joke. Sometimes the joke is on Hollywood mucky-mucks. Sometimes the joke is on fans of his mainstream success ("Erin Brockovich," "Ocean's Eleven"). And sometimes the joke is on art film snobs who can't understand why Soderbergh, the artuer behind left-field flicks like "Schitzopolis," "The Limey" and "sex, lies & videotape," would have ever "gone Hollywood" to begin with.
On one level "Full Frontal" is an over-lit, digi-video, fly-on-the-wall guerilla-style picture following several cross-pollinating characters both inside and on the fringes of the filmmaking industry. David Hyde Pierce plays a melancholy milksop writer for Los Angeles Magazine whose first screenplay is being produced. Catherine Keener is his petulant, borderline-lunatic wife, a human resources director who torments nervous employees in erratic, interrogation-style interviews by day, and by night becomes a Hollywood hanger-on with delusions of significance. Mary McCormack plays her sister, a manicly depressed massage therapist who gets sexually harassed by a bigwig movie producer (David Duchovny), who wants help with his autoerotic fantasies.
On another level, the film is an overly glossy, ostensibly intellectual but deliberately trite mass-market romance (from the screenplay written by Pierce) about a reporter and a movie star falling in love while she shadows him on the set of yet another movie (in which he plays a cop along side Brad Pitt) for a magazine fluff piece profile she's writing.
The movie star (a black actor frustrated by the way people of color are treated in Hollywood) is played by an up-and-coming actor (from the film's behind-the-scenes level), who is played by Blair Underwood. The reporter is played by a major movie star (from the film's behind-the-scenes level), who is played by Julia Roberts, who is poking fun at her own image and some of the movies she's made.
Soderbergh and first-time screenwriter Coleman Hough weave the movie's manifold narrative strata into one another in ways reminiscent of Frederico Fellini's "8 1/2," while feeling like off-the-wall, old school Soderbergh at the same time. "Full Frontal" isn't just an industry insider spoof aimed at a fairly selective and shrewd audience (Miramax chairman Harvey Weinstein, played by Jeff Garlin, is roundly mocked in a "cameo," rejecting a pitch from the movie star played by the actor played by Blair Underwood). There are even levels of comedy here that only hardcore Soderbergh fans will get -- like a throwaway establishing shot in the movie-within-a-movie that features Terence Stamp as his character from "The Limey" (who shows up again later in another layer of the film). Even the opening credits contain insider japes if you know what to look for.
There's a great delight in seeing such huge Hollywood stars giving sublime, persona-busting performances in a picture so esoteric. Even more gratifying is knowing Soderbergh hasn't lost his uniquely artsy, astute, inventive, odd and ambitious independent spirit. But most satisfying of all is realizing the director has a sense of humor about himself and knows, quite happily, that this movie will be loved by some and loathed by others.
Another critic I spoke to recently dismissed it as ostentatious, self-referential crap. To which I say, "Yes. And...?"
Run time: 101 mins
In Theaters: Friday 20th September 2002
Box Office USA: $2.4M
Box Office Worldwide: $2.5M
Distributed by: Miramax Films
Production compaines: Miramax Films
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 38%
Fresh: 54 Rotten: 88
IMDB: 4.8 / 10
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: David Duchovny as Bill, Nicky Katt as Hitler, Catherine Keener as Lee, Mary McCormack as Linda, David Hyde Pierce as Carl, Julia Roberts as Catherine, Blair Underwood as Nicholas, Dina Waters as Third Fired Employee
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