People assume that, because I like movies, I must like The Player, a well-crafted, funny movie about making movies. In fact, I hated The Player viscerally. I was in L.A. at the time, starving and trying to break in to the biz. So although I laughed at all the jokes and admired the references to Touch of Evil and Goodfellas, The last thing I wanted to see was a picture about the exclusivity and corruption of above-the-law Hollywood elites.
Ever since then, I’ve had a phobia about Hollywood insider movies, so when I went to Full Frontal, knowing that it was shot on digital video by Steven Soderbergh with stars like Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt, and that it was about making movies, I was very afraid. I wasn’t sure I could stand to see “We’re Hollywood bigshots; our every little quirk is fascinating to the rest of you; we can even shoot on video and you’ll still fawn over us.”
Obviously my fears were misplaced. Steven Soderbergh is not that cynical, and to be honest, I think he loves movies as much as I do. He’s also very smart and talented, and with Full Frontal he’s put together more than just an experiment with the medium, he’s actually made a good movie.
A Full Ensemble
Full Frontal opens with the briefest of introductions to an ensemble of characters before the film starts. Wait a minute. Film? Isn’t this supposed to be Full Frontal, shot on video by Steven Soderbergh?
Turns out that there is a film within this video. The film is called Rendezvous, starring Francesca (Julia Roberts) and Calvin (Blair Underwood). In Rendezvous, Francesca plays Catherine, a writer on a long interview assignment. She’s being flown first class with an up-and-coming black actor (Calvin, playing Nicholas) who’d rather be the next Sidney Poitier than to play another action hero or comic sidekick.
Intercut with this film is the “real” world, which is shot on video and is peopled with writers, producers and actors working in L.A. Among them are Francesca and Calvin, whose off-screen lives seem so much more shallow and isolated than the characters they play in Rendezvous.
Linda is a massage therapist to the stars, played by Mary McCormack. She’s agreed to meet her internet boyfriend for the first time this weekend and she is both anxious and nervous. The internet boyfriend (Enrico Colantoni) has lied about his age and exaggerated his artistic talents. He claims to be a painter, but really he’s a playwright. He’s rewritten “The Sound and the Fury” as “The Sound and the Führer.” His leading man (Nicky Katt) is flattered by the statement: “... you ... ARE ... Hitler.”
Catherine Keener is Linda’s sister Lee, and she’s a junior executive at a big L.A. company. She’s cracking up from stress, and she’s taking some underlings with her. To keep their jobs they must balance on one foot, play catch with her big inflatable globe, and recite all the countries in Africa. But then, this is Hollywood, where eager young talent will do just about anything for a job.
Catherine is leaving her husband Carl (David Hyde-Pierce). Carl is a writer for Los Angeles Magazine. He wrote the big cover story — the one where Brad Pitt talks about spirituality. He doesn’t seem to deserve the position he has; his coworkers look on him with condescending pity. And in fact, the day that our film takes place is his last day with the company. Hollywood has chewed him up and is now spitting him out. What has he done wrong? He uses “but” instead of “and.” He drinks beer from the glass and not from the bottle. He doesn’t lack talent or hard work, he’s simply been voted off the island by the beautiful L.A. elite.
All these characters are defined by their relationship with Gus (David Duchovny), the producer who is throwing the big party tonight. For most, this party is a dreaded chore, although none will dare miss it and jeopardize their fragile careers and egoes.
All of these stories are scrumbled up, edited together (using software you can buy for your Apple computer), and intercut with Rendezvous. Collectively, they explore the jaded, fleeting, butt-kissing life of an actor, of a writer, of an executive in L.A.
The most satisfying, most real moments come when two people connect who don’t have any sense of power or fame. The spat-out writer comes home to a sick dog, and the hippie veterinarian who comes to help connects with him in a way he has been unable to before. The masseuse spends all day dealing with A-list assholes, and is only able to open up when she talks to a cook, her sister, or a stranger at the airport.
The rest of the time, when two people talk in L.A., something is always not right. Calvin looks like he would rather not be answering all of Francesca’s questions, but his career demands it. Lee’s interactions with her employees are tainted by her position of power. Carl is disliked but his coworkers can’t really express why... (make that and his coworkers...). Even this sense of frustrated communication is entertaining in the hands of Steven Soderbergh.
As I’ve always said, one of the best reasons to see a movie is to be able to talk about it later with friends. The best thing about Full Frontal is that it’s hard to evaluate and easy to discuss. Because there are so many stories, there is no single moral. Because there are so many characters, each viewer will connect with a different set. See Full Frontal with friends and you will be sure to have something to talk about.