Steven Soderbergh has had quite the last couple of years. He's won an Oscar, found an unspeakable amount of success with "Erin Brockovich," "Traffic," and "Ocean's Eleven," and convinced a major studio to back a remake of "Solaris," a sexed-up psychological space thriller due this holiday season. But Soderbergh pines for the days when it was just him, the actors and his camera. "Full Frontal" (IMDb listing) sets out to capture that feeling again, regardless of whether or not the audience is invited in on the fun.
Shot over the course of two weeks and for $2 million, "Full Frontal" is simply a story about one day in the life of Hollywood. We meet Calvin (Blair Underwood), a highly successful actor who spends the day being interviewed by Francesca (Julia Roberts), but aren't they both actors? We see Alice (Catherine Keener), a human resources executive, go through the daily grind of interviews, while her mind drifts to her lover and the impending dismissal of her husband, Carl (David Hyde Pierce), who just lost his job and also mistakenly left out hash brownies for the family dog to eat. Alice's sister, Linda (Mary McCormack) is a masseuse, who's just been subjected to a humiliating session with a demanding film producer (David Duchovny), and is nervous about meeting her Internet boyfriend, Ed (Enrico Colantoni) for the first time. Ed himself is a playwright behind a Hitler play getting ready for its first performance with a temperamental actor (Nicky Katt, insufferable as always), and a city that could care less.
As the title suggests, "Full Frontal" is about people who expose themselves emotionally to others. Yet, I would like to think of the film as more of an elaborate acting exercise that doesn't add up to much, but is passably engrossing nonetheless. "Full Frontal" can be viewed as Soderbergh's throat-clearing film before he heads back to the world of big budgets and wide releases. It's a picture that appears to resonate only with Soderbergh, and the thrill of this mostly digital-video film isn't contagious nor valuable. "Full Frontal" is fascinating to watch from a purely theatrical standpoint, but as a Hollywood razzing, it's strictly leftovers. And as a Soderbergh film, it makes magnificent pap like "Ocean's Eleven" seem all the more proficient.
I do give credit to Soderbergh for not making the Hollywood satire unbearable, as is usually the case. There is a distinct smattering of both love and contempt for the city and the industry that drives it, but Soderbergh never wallows in the mire. The tone in "Full Frontal" is more playful than bitter, a choice that works best for this picture.
The key to "Full Frontal" is the actors, and as instructed by Soderbergh, they have a healthy sense of exuberance with this so-called "experimental" film. Consisting of mostly improvisational dialog and locations, the talent is skilled enough to carry scenes without losing the poker face that this is, essentially, an on-the-fly film. Nobody in this large, sprawling cast breaks new ground, but they're given a chance to perform for themselves, and the results, especially for Underwood, Pierce, and McCormack, are revitalizing. Julia Roberts, easily the "name" of the cast, gives an adequate performance here. But outside of a gimmicky and self-serving actor tantrum scene, there's nothing much from Roberts, or the cast, that we haven't seen before. Well, besides a David Duchovny erection, which is actually the film's most inspired moment.
For Soderbergh purists only, "Full Frontal" might not even satisfy them. A film within a film within a film, the picture doesn't have the focus I've come to expect from the filmmaker. And while I could watch the actors work their characters all day, I still wish they were in another film that had more structure for their complicated lives to play out in.
Filmfodder Grade: C