Steven Soderbergh reportedly now disdains Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but to brave Full Frontal--Soderbergh's strenuously self-reflexive "sequel in spirit" to that breakthrough feature--is to fall in love with the earlier film's elegant measurement all over again.
Screenwriter Coleman Hough spackled together several two-character acting-class scenes she had written for Full Frontal, and Soderbergh guided plenty of interstitial improvisation and mixed media (titles, title cards, music and narration). To synopsize the results would be to buy into the tired practical joke that is this film. Suffice it to say that it's an Altmanesque relay race to a pointless finish, involving plenty of "insider" cameos (I won't bother spoiling them), arch spoofery of bad art, and angsty seriocomic relationship prattle.
The stars of Full Frontal are David Duchovny, Nicky Katt, Catherine Keener, Mary McCormack, David Hyde Pierce, Julia Roberts, and Blair Underwood. Keener probably fares best, with the most original comic material and most affecting dramatic moments (that this is one of five major roles Keener appears in this year saps her impact a bit); her office-politics permutations sporadically hold interest, while her eroding marriage plotline (Hyde Pierce is her hapless spouse) coalesces in the end. Nicky Katt scores several laughs as a stage Hitler, but the wacky Hitler is a moldy vehicle (instead of stealing Mel Brooks's thirty-four-year-old comic boldness, why not invent a modern equivalent that would shock us into guilty laughter? Because its easier to dish out bad taste to the character than risk it himself). Roberts and Underwood share a plot thread; Roberts remains unscathed, and Underwood has an actor's field day weaving a rap on black actors. The larger problem is that the actors are indulged with too many rambling, circular, improvisatory speeches, the worst of which are layered over as agonizingly precious narrations full of affected stutters, "um"s, and pauses. These confessional voice-overs sound as if the actors are trying to sound unrehearsed, to the opposite effect.
With the misguided relish of someone crying a news report everyone's already heard, Soderbergh uses his facile Russian-nesting-doll structure of films within films to comment on (and question!) the egocentric "true lies" nature of cinema. Soderbergh's often blurry, out-of-focus, and shaky photography (shot, as usual of late, by the director himself) is only partly a function of the resolutely economical ($2 million budget) 18-day shoot, and more pointedly an exaggeration of Soderbergh's own down-and-dirty aesthetic (contrasted to clean 35mm footage of another "film" we see, dubbed Rendezvous). I'm all for experimental approaches and shrinking budgets, but not as justification for half-baked vanity projects.
Soderbergh recently told a reporter, "The people who've had the most trouble with the movie are the ones who are convinced there's something to figure out. You can sort of see the pained expressions on their faces. I keep telling them 'It was just supposed to be fun.'" But Full Frontal plays like equal parts pretentious statement and larky toss-off; the sum of those parts won't be half as fun for audiences as it was for the usually serious artists who made it. Aimed at film lovers, this insufferable misfire is likely to most insult its target audience while leaving casual walk-ins scratching their heads. Full Frontal isn't awful--there's too much talent involved on both sides of the camera--but it's plenty irritating for the wasted (if not terribly wasteful) opportunity.