DVD Review of Full Frontal
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/27/04
More than any other name brand director Steven Soderbergh switches his style and filmic vocabulary to suit the story at hand that he wants to tell. In no film is this more evident than in his overlooked 2002 film Full Frontal. Filmed on a shoe string between his larger budgeted remakes of Ocean’s 11 and Solaris, this film was almost universally panned by critics. No, it’s not one of the greatest films ever made, but it’s certainly not as bad a film as panned, nor a bad film at all.
This film revolves around the lives of some low level movie types who are all invited to a party for a film producer who ends up dead in his motel room due to his kinky perversions. There’s a married couple, Lee and Carl (Catherine Keener and David Hyde Pierce), on the rocks- he’s a depressed screenwriter who’s just been canned and she’s an adulteress who’s getting banged by the star of the film Carl wrote. That star, Calvin (Blair Underwood), is having problems both in his real and reel lives. Calvin with juggling his many lovers, including Lee, and his character Nicholas, from the film in the film called Rendezvous, who struggles through life as an actor, until he gets a break in a Brad Pitt cop film (which is a film in the film in the film) directed by real life director David Fincher. Soderbergh, himself, also appears X-ed out as himself. In the mere film in the film, Rendezvous, Nicholas is being interviewed and pursued by Catherine, who is played by Francesca in the actual film (Julia Roberts in real life). Francesca and Calvin end up at the party for Gus the producer, along with Lee and her sister Linda (Mary McCormack), the hotel masseuse who earlier in the day gave Gus (David Duchovny) a blowjob for $500. Having felt guilty over her prostitution- as well as stealing an extra $500 from Gus- it is Linda who discovers the body.
She also is the connector to the other characters in the film- an fringe play director whom she meets online and sillily hopes to rendezvous in Arizona with, unaware that he is in LA, like her- one of many lies he’s spun. The director’s play is an indie farce about a contemporized Hitler but having a devil of a time with his unnamed lead actor (Nicky Katt) whose egomania is ruining his production. Like all the film’s characters, Hitler has gotten lost up in his own world, an interior world separate from the actual film’s ‘reality’. After the body is found, the party ends and the main characters go their separate ways. The film that Calvin and Francesca star in is shot in standard film stock with a pretentious classical music soundtrack while the ‘outer film’ is shot in grainy digital video. The film then ends with Linda flying to meet the play director she presumes is in Arizona only to meet a man in the airport who sweeps her off her feet. At this revelation the camera pulls back to reveal that even the ‘outer’ film is just a film within the actual film of ‘Full Frontal’. Since we have had voiceovers throughout the whole ‘outer’ film the end reveal that this film is also an artifice has been thoroughly foreshadowed, yet many critics and viewers felt Soderbergh ‘cheated’ them with the ending. Yet, their bitching only proved the point of the film, that mere style can lull the none-too-bright into believing obvious artifice is not!
The film also succeeds because it is not as cutesy nor obvious as recent Charlie Kaufman films like Adaptation that advertise their ‘depth’ and need to take your hand through their layers, as its many layers within layers are fractally realized not just in the multi-layered film structure, but in the layers of the characters, as well, along with being balanced enough in the script to allow the viewer to make the negatively capable leaps between layers as they unfold. Yet, even when the film does use gimmicks they work very well in their place. As example is Terrence Stamp’s double appearance in the film- first in a reprise of his character Wilson from Soderbergh’s excellent earlier The Limey in the airplane in the Rendezvous film-in-film, then as himself at the hotel where Gus’s party is being held. The joke is that The Limey, as a film, was so deeply constructed so that the audience never knew whether it was a dream, a memory, or a fantasy. This is a level of subtlety which is rarely attempted in modern cinema. It is also a level of subtlety and sophistication that is beyond most filmgoers and critics- thus why the film was so roundly abused.
Yet, one can only help but admire Soderbergh’s willingness to adeptly go back and forth between the mainstream and his indie roots, especially since his critical and financial dufecta of Erin Brockovich and Traffic has allowed him to abandon the small film if he wanted. While there is truth to criticisms that Soderbergh has made too many remakes in recent years (and I, personally prefer the smaller, personal feel of The Limey and Full Frontal) I doubt that it’s due to laze, merely a restiveness and desire to see how he can veer from already tried conventions. The DVD’s features are worth checking out, even if the film is not what most viewers expect. Soderbergh is, along with Francis Ford Coppola, one of the few film directors adept at discussing both film and art in general, as well the making of the film under commentary. His explication of scenes, along with the screenwriter, is top notch, as is a feature that has the characters in the film being interviewed by Soderbergh ‘in character’. I guess it’s a testament to the vapidity and impatience of the American public that such a gem of a little film was lost in the harsh glare of criticism, but my gut tells me that this is a film like Orson Welles’ The Stranger, Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, or Coppola’s The Conversation, that will only grow in stature in his canon through the years. Given its premature burial, in fact, that’s really the only thing it can do.
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