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"Full Frontal" Review

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Title: Full Frontal

Starring: Julia Roberts, Blair Underwood, Nicky Katt, Catherine Keener, David Duchovny

Written by: Coleman Hough

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Rating: R for language and some sexual content.


Review by Stephen Silver

As Hollywood's most prolific director of the last few years, Steven Soderbergh has made a rapid-fire succession of films that have pleased audiences, critics, and sometimes even both. However, in his new film, "Full Frontal," seems aimed to please no one but Soderbergh himself.

The most transparently masturbatory Hollywood production since Kevin Smith's "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back," "Full Fontal" is Soderbergh's stab both at emulating the Danish "Dogme 95" movement and at poking fun at Hollywood culture. But unfortunately for the director, both of those sub-genres have become rather tired, and he has almost nothing substantial to say about either.

"Full Frontal" has been billed as a "spiritual sequel" to the director's 1989 debut "sex, lies, and videotape." We know what Soderbergh is doing (telling a story with a movie-within-the-movie-within-the-movie, etc.), but we don't know why- nothing on any one level of reality in any way complements anything on any other, and any similarities between them are more or less coincidental. The film's key gimmick is that the primary story is depicted on handheld digital video, while the secondary film-within-the-film was shot on standard film. The trick of splitting different plot levels into different photographic styles was previously used by Soderbergh (who acts as his own cinematographer) in "Traffic," though in that film it was used for sublime narrative effect, while in "Full Frontal" all we're likely to notice is how ugly and unprofessional the digital photography looks. It's so bad that in many scenes it's next to impossible to tell what exactly is going on.

The film's plot is an attempt at an ensemble drama a la Altman's "The Player" and "Short Cuts" or P.T. Anderson's "Boogie Nights" and "Magnolia," but on that level it fails because a majority of the characters are simply uninteresting and the multi-level format doesn't help matters.

The film-within-the-film, for instance, features characters played by Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood, and while it lacks the putrid DV photography of the other plot, it's never interesting, at any point. Not even when they visit a movie set featuring Brad Pitt and director David Fincher (yet another movie-within-the-movie). Soderbergh also gives us no reason to care about characters played by David Hyde Pierce and Catherine Keener, and David Duchovny's talents are wasted in an all-too-brief appearance. Roberts plays two characters, both of which correspond almost exactly with her increasingly tiresome public persona.

However, there is one marvelous little section of the plot that features Enrico Colontoni (from "Just Shoot Me") as the author of a comedic play about Hitler, played with neurotic aplomb by "Boston Public"'s Nicky Katt. I don't think I'd be alone among moviegoers in hypothesizing that either an entire movie about Colontoni's character or a feature-length version of the Hitler play would be vastly superior to the finished "Full Frontal" product.

Another rather unlikable aspect of the film is its arrogrant insiderish-ness. There are all kinds of references that most viewers won't get and those who do get them won't find them particularly funny- especially a cameo by Jeff Garlin (from HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm") as a Harvey Weinstein-like studio boss. All the Hollywood stuff seems a half-hearted attempt to rip off "The Player" and allow Soderbergh (like Altman before him) to show off how many A-list stars that he's friends with (wasn't that the point of "Ocean's Eleven"?). And the most off-putting part of all is a recurring joke in which characters come up with their "porn star name" by combining their middle name with the street they live on- a joke that's been old for about six years. Isn't Hollywood supposed to come up with this stuff first, and not last?

If nothing else, "Full Frontal" goes in the "fascinating failures" bin. Soderbergh has achieved greatness before (most notably with "sex, lies," "Out of Sight," "Traffic," and "Ocean's Eleven,") and likely will again. It was brave of him to take such a risk as a filmmaker, yet it would be dishonest to give him credit for anything more.

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