‘Full Frontal’: an indecent proposal

Late in director Steven Soderbergh’s latest film “Full Frontal,” the pet dog of a Hollywood couple accidentally devours an entire pan of hash brownies and spends the rest of the film in a catatonic state. If one wants to enjoy “Full Frontal,” consuming a pan of hash brownies or some substance to that effect beforehand would not be a bad idea – the film on its own is a pretty weak offering and will most likely leave you catatonic on its own accord.

This is especially disappointing because Soderbergh’s name generally guarantees something worth seeing – he is arguably one of the best filmmakers working today. However, here he has crafted a film that does little more than meander from one scene to the next.

“Full Frontal” follows the lives of a seemingly disparate group of characters who work in the movie industry, and as the film cuts between them and their stories, subtle connections begin to emerge. The film shows some initial promise as the characters are introduced, but it does not take long before the feeling that the film is going nowhere sets in. Part of this is the sluggish pace, part of it is because little reason to care about any of the characters is ever given.

This is not to say that there aren’t amusing bits to be found here and there. Nicky Katt plays an actor starring as a neurotic Hitler in a play called “The Sound and the Fuhrer” and gets many of the film’s funniest lines. David Duchovny has a small but memorable role as a big time Hollywood producer whose 40th birthday party brings all of the characters together.

The rest of the cast works admirably to make their scenes memorable or even watchable, but for the most part fail to register. Also thrown in for good measure is a movie within a movie starring Julia Roberts and produced by Duchovny’s character. In the past few years, Soderbergh has seemingly become incapable of making a movie without Roberts, so this comes as little surprise.

While the rest of the film was shot in grainy handheld digital video, the movie-within-a-movie scenes were filmed in standard 35 mm. The effect is supposed to be jarring, the slickly-produced movie scenes contrasting with the documentary style “real life” characters. It’s an interesting idea that ultimately does not have much of an impact on the film one way or another. Soderbergh had much more success using different film stocks in “Traffic” where each storyline was given its own washed out color so as to make following that epic film easier for the viewer. “Traffic” was remarkable in the way that it weaved a vast ensemble into one powerful story, Soderbergh is renowned for being stylish, but not at the expense of a good story. “Ocean’s Eleven” was arguably an exercise in style and cinematic coolness, but it was also so entertaining that the thinness of the plot did not hold it back.

In “Full Frontal,” what Soderbergh sacrifices for plot, he does not make up for in style. All it really does is make the scenes shot in digital video look even sloppier than they actually are.

However, perhaps that’s the point, as “Full Frontal” was not made to appeal to the traditional audience. The behind-the-scenes story on “Full Frontal” is actually much more interesting than the film itself. After the huge financial success and critical acclaim of “Erin Brockovich,” “Traffic” and “Ocean’s Eleven,” Soderbergh wanted to return to his independent film roots.

Filmed in less than 20 days at a cost of only $2 million, “Full Frontal” was an experiment from the beginning. The actors provided their own costumes, drove themselves to the set and improvised heavily. All of this sounds like intriguing and risk-taking filmmaking – the perfect antidote to a summer full of fairly brainless $100 million movies. Yet “Full Frontal” never rises above the level of average, regardless of its experimental and indie film trappings.

The viewer can appreciate the intentions of Soderbergh, taking a break from the Hollywood system to try something smaller, especially after the slick “Ocean’s Eleven.” And he is definitely capable of making small films: his little-seen revenge film “The Limey” was largely overlooked as it came out between “Out of Sight” and “Erin Brockovich” and featured no big stars. Fans of Soderbergh may want to check out “Full Frontal,” but even with the good intentions with which this film was made, it’s often hard to watch.