Steven Soderbergh goes "Dogma 95" in "Full Frontal," an enjoyable but ephemeral little L.A. ensemble comedy-drama that's the most experimental, unfettered film he's shot recently.
Freedom, though, isn't always a filmmaker's best option. This movie is about a free-floating community of writers, actors, executives and sexual malcontents zigzagging around each other - and it's shot without big-studio constraints, pretty much the way Lars Von Trier ("Dancer in the Dark") and his Dogma fellows shoot their ultra-austere art films. But though "Full Frontal" has lots of liberty and a glittery cast - Julia Roberts, David Hyde Pierce, Catherine Keener and a half-dozen other major talents - that doesn't mean it's a success. It's a weird little movie that's amusing enough while you watch it, offering fine acting moments and pungent insights into modern L.A.'s show-biz and media subcultures. But it doesn't leave you with much.
Considering the power, style and depth of Soderbergh's recent "commercial" pictures - "Erin Brockovich," "Out of Sight" and "Traffic" - the thinness of "Full Frontal" is disconcerting. Is Soderbergh better when he's chained or constrained by the studios than when he can do what he wants? Probably not, but you could mount a case after watching "Full Frontal."
Based on a series of playlets by writer Coleman Hough, played by an all-star cast who often improvise, and shot (by Soderbergh himself, under his nom du camera, "Peter Andrews") in a style that mixes artificial big-movie lushness with scrappy-looking underlit video-making, this is an almost self-consciously experimental film. It plays like a penance for "Ocean's Eleven" by a man who wants to prove he hasn't "gone Hollywood." But "Oceans Eleven" doesn't need any apologies - and "Full Frontal" sometimes does.
In the film, a dozen or so young or middle-aged Angelenos cross paths on the day when one of them - New York-born producer Gus (David Duchovny) - is holding a big 40th birthday party. Gus is a power-tripper who gets off on plastic-bag perversions, and he probably gives the film its title during a scene where he gets a full-frontal massage (with extras) from discontent masseuse Linda (Mary McCormack), whose sharkwater-sharp career woman sister, Lee (Catherine Keener), is married to Carl (David Hyde Pierce), an insecure Los Angeles Magazine staffer and sometime screenwriter.
The others include experimental playwright Arty/Ed (Enrico Colantoni), whose play "The Sound and the Fuhrer" stars a self-obsessed actor played by Nicky Katt, and Francesca (Julia Roberts) and Calvin (Blair Underwood), two actors starring in the lush movie-within-the-movie "Rendezvous," in which they play studly TV/movie actor Nicholas and sexy journalist Catherine, who is interviewing him for that same Los Angeles Magazine. (Brad Pitt and director David Fincher both pop up, as themselves, in the movie-within-the-movie-within-the-movie Calvin is making in "Rendezvous.")
If all this sounds a bit like "Short Cuts" Lite, that's not how it plays. The movie glides along in a series of two-character scenes that are so obviously strung-together playlets that they almost seem like acting-class exercises (which, at one point, some of them were) - until the big party scene at the end, which collapses into a half-drunk, suitably dark but unsatisfying climax.
The darkness doesn't really feel earned. There's a death at the end, but it doesn't resonate with much more emotion than another late crisis where Carl's dog overdoses on hashish brownies. "Full Frontal" is funny - especially when Katt, Keener or Hyde Pierce are on screen - yet the humor doesn't connect with anything deeper, as it did in "Short Cuts" or "The Player." I hate to say this about a Soderbergh film, but "Full Frontal" is just pleasant and inconsequential. And forgettable.
The problem is the script. Soderbergh seems to relish the idea of doing something small and slapdash, just going out and getting it on with the actors. And sometimes the results seem worth it. Hyde Pierce taps such a vein of neurotic half-priggery in Carl, a twitcher lost in a laid-back world, that he gets some real wistfulness and sadness. Keener plays another of her man-killer roles, like the one in "Being John Malkovich." But while she's terrific at it, the gags where she bullies and fires a series of employees don't sting enough.
Roberts and Underwood are a dazzling couple, especially in the "Rendezvous" scenes, but it's hard to reconcile those with the murky long video takes, unless you try to take the rest of "Full Frontal" as "reality." Given its deliberate satire and absurdist spirit, that's hard. There's a movie or two in "Full Frontal," but not much reality.
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh; written by Coleman Hough; photographed by Peter Andrews (a.k.a. Soderbergh); edited by Sarah Flack; sound Paul Ledford; assistant director Gregory Jacobs; produced by Scott Kramer, Jacobs. A Miramax Films release; opens Friday, Aug. 2. Running time: 1:41. MPAA rating: R (language, some sexual content).
Francesca/Catherine - Julia Roberts
Calvin/Nicholas - Blair Underwood
Lee - Catherine Keener
Carl - David Hyde-Pierce
Linda - Mary McCormack
Hitler - Nicky Katt Gus - David Duchovny
Michael Wilmington is the Chicago Tribune Movie Critic.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times