Everybody Needs a Release.
Steven Soderbergh got a breakthrough in 1989 with the indie hit sex, lies, and videotape, which garnered an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay. Since then he's been on a rather hit or miss ride, directing the underappreciated Out of Sight in 1998, and gaining not one but two nominations (not to mention the actual statue) for Best Director for his efforts in 2000 on Traffic and Erin Brockovich. After making the crowd-pleasing Ocean's Eleven, Soderbergh decided to return to his roots and make a film that essentially allowed him to thumb his nose at the Hollywood system. This new film, Full Frontal, was savaged by critics and stayed in theaters for roughly four hours. Buena Vista has brought it home with a vastly overpriced DVD.
Facts of the Case
Full Frontal centers around a group of people living very separate lives who are all invited to a birthday celebration for a big Hollywood producer, Gus (David Duchovny, Evolution, TV's The X-Files). And what a pathetic bunch we have. Lee (Catherine Keener, Being John Malkovich, Death to Smoochy) is an adulteress going through a midlife crisis who wants out of her marriage and who works in a human resources department. She finds an inflatable globe in her parking space and creatively uses it during her interviews. Her husband Carl (David Hyde-Pierce, A Bug's Life, TV's Frasier) is a pathetic husk of a human being who works as a screenwriter and gets fired, starting what will become a horrible day. Nicky Katt (Insomnia, Boiler Room) plays an actor portraying a ridiculously neurotic Hitler in a stage play for director Arty (Enrico Colantoni, Galaxy Quest, TV's Just Shoot Me), who's using an assumed name to hook up with a masseuse, Linda (Mary McCormack, K-PAX), he met on the internet, and who just happens to be Lee's sister. Got all that so far? Good, because we can't forget about Catherine (Julia Roberts, Erin Brockovich, Pretty Woman), who's going to be starring in the movie within the movie about a movie within a movie with Nicholas (Blair Underwood, Gattaca). Brad Pitt (Se7en, Fight Club) makes a cameo as himself, and David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club) shows up as a director of said movie within a movie to complete the joke.
The story becomes a "day in the life" piece that culminates when the lives of the characters collide at the birthday party and Gus fails to show at his own celebration. What dark secret is he hiding?
If you were able to understand and appreciate the above description of Full Frontal, a film that maybe tries a bit too hard to be really clever and comes off as rather pretentious, then you might get the over all joke behind Full Frontal. Soderbergh seems to have tried to position himself as a Hollywood outsider (granted, a Hollywood outsider who's succeeded) and he's taken this opportunity to rebel against the institutions, customs, and mannerisms of big Hollywood films. He starts with a list of rules that all of the actors had to live by, such as giving up all of the amenities that a star generally receives, such as a trailer, catered meals, make up, et cetera. After that there was an understanding that the cameras could be rolling at any time and any footage taken could potentially find its way into the film. Ad-libbing was also highly encouraged, though a few of the actors seem to have interpreted "ad-libbing" as "mumbling." To say that Full Frontal was a film that was made simply to satisfy Soderbergh (or, maybe to stroke his ego, or whatever) and not to satisfy the general film audience would be an irrefutable statement, and the evidence for this is found in the meager box office receipts. Granted, I'll never judge a movie based upon how much it grossed, lest garbage like Pearl Harbor be considered masterpieces, but there has to be something to this argument in this case. More evidence for my stance is found in the various interviews and director's commentary on the Full Frontal DVD, in which Soderbergh actually admits to making a film that probably only he and a few people working in Hollywood would enjoy.
There are a great number of reasons not to like Full Frontal, and I'll start with the shallow, crass characters that inhabit Soderbergh's film. There are really no people here that the audience is going to be able to identify with, unless you identify readily with pathetic losers like Carl, who comes as close to an "everyman" as is allowed under the concept of the film. As the film plods along I found myself building up a slow, burning hatred for each and every single one of the characters, and when they all gather for the birthday party at day's end I was secretly hoping Billy Joel would show up to crash his Mercedes into the crowd. This would have been far more exciting than most of the 101 minutes that make up the story. A couple of characters demonstrate some nice, touching, poignant moments at the end of the film, but this really doesn't make up for the general level of apathy I felt by the conclusion of Full Frontal. The film isn't a complete waste, as there certainly are some rather amusing touches to the characters, such as Nicky Katt's portrayal of Hitler, and Gus' fetish for auto-erotic self-asphyxiation (see The X-Files episode "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose" for some insight into the joke here) all make for some funny moments, but it really isn't worth the effort of watching Full Frontal as a whole. I will at least admit that these moments made it seem like the film wasn't the absolute train wreck numerous other critics made it out to be.
The acting is something of a mixed bag in Full Frontal, though all of the actors do the absolute best at getting into the script. The propensity for ad-libs lends a natural feel to the dialogue that suits the actor and character, and this is probably the strength of Full Frontal. Usually most movies have a piece of dialogue that sticks out as particularly bad or forced, but this is not the case here. Unfortunately, as I alluded above, some of the dialogue comes out like the actor has a mouthful of marbles, and it probably wouldn't have hurt Soderbergh to do a second take here and there. I know he was going for a natural feel, but it doesn't help when you can't understand what someone is trying to say. I'll also point out that Julia Roberts does not benefit in any way from the lack of a make-up department, and I felt like she was proving the Seinfeld theory of good light and bad light. Catherine Keener comes across in the exact opposite way, however.
My next complaint brings me to the overall pacing of Full Frontal. During the first fifteen or twenty minutes, Soderbergh has this urge to jump around quickly between the various plot elements that are occurring. The result is that the viewer is never given the chance to get comfortable with any one or two characters (another rule is that there would never be more than two characters on camera at any given time) and confusion and disorientation set in. It's kind of like drinking far more than the recommended dosage of Ny-Quil™ during the daytime when you're not sick. About thirty minutes in the story still jumps around, but the audience should become more accustomed to what's going on and start to focus on the story, which is unfortunate because the audience discovers that absolutely nothing is happening. The premise of all of these little "slice of life" movies is admirable, but they tend to reinforce the point that normal people tend to lead dull, boring, gray, little lives. The lesson here is that if a movie star is leading a boring life, what hope does a regular schmoe like me have? Now I'm depressed.
My largest grievance with Full Frontal comes in the amateurish video presentation. Soderbergh decided to give the film a very natural and unpolished look, so he did 95% of the filming with a handheld camera. A digital camera was used for the footage of Rendez Vous, the film a few of the actors are working on. The result is that 95% of the film looks like a badly lit, grainy, and messy student film. Yeah, yeah, I realize that Soderbergh "meant to do this" to give the film a "natural" feel, but the fact is it still looks like "crap." If I'm going to draw a picture of a tree and to depict the leaves I scribble on the paper with purple ink (after all, I have the artistic skills of a bag of sand), I can argue that I meant to do that, but that doesn't mean anybody has to accept it or appreciate it. Soderbergh's efforts behind the camera were very difficult on the eyes and greatly detracted from the viewing experience.
Knowing this, I think it goes without reason to say that the video transfer looks poor. Yeah, I know it's supposed to look this way, but let's also take into consideration some edge enhancement, and you still don't have a great film transfer. The sound is noticeably flat, as well, and seems to be a complete waste of a 5.1 channel soundtrack. I should also point out that the theatrical release featured DTS, but there is no DTS track on the DVD. If you are one of the few who enjoyed Full Frontal, then you should really be pleased with the special features that Buena Vista has lined up. There are some deleted scenes with the optional commentary by Soderbergh. As usual, with deleted scenes, the average viewer can usually guess why they were deleted. This rule applies with Full Frontal. Next we have the Director's Spy Cam, which shows a few minutes of spy cam footage of the actors talking about the spy cam. We then get to go through "The Rules" that were applied to the cast and minimal crew for Full Frontal, and this is supplemented by the In-Character Interviews that each cast member had to do as a part of The Rules. These interviews give some more insight into each of the characters and some pieces of the interviews were used as voiceovers for the film, giving it something of a "Reality TV" feel. After that we get a Conversation with Steven Soderbergh, who explains why he felt he needed to make Full Frontal and what he was trying to accomplish. (For the record, I feel he succeeded at what he was trying to do, and for that there's a bit of admiration that I have for the guy. This still doesn't mean I enjoyed the end product, but I can at least respect the guy for following his vision.) Lastly, Buena Vista provides a commentary track featuring Soderbergh and screenwriter Coleman Hough. This is the first Soderbergh track I've ever listened to, and after falling asleep from boredom half way through the Full Frontal commentary, I'm going to guess it will be the last. Waking up with a stiff neck and a massive drool streamer to the menu screen of Full Frontal was an unpleasant experience to say the least. Buena Vista has also provided the obligatory theatrical trailer, which is honestly one of the worst film trailers I've ever seen.
I'll admit that there were moments in Full Frontal that I really enjoyed, but there were many more moments when I was bored to tears. The film is very pretentious, it comes off as trying to be a little too clever for its own good, but there are going to be those out there who enjoy it. I won't sit here and insult someone's taste for liking Full Frontal, but I'm also not going to turn around and recommend this movie to anyone. At Buena Vista's ridiculous price point, you're definitely better off renting this one first if you're curious about the film.
Full Frontal is proclaimed guilty of being dull, pretentious, high-falootin' snootery. The court hereby orders Steven Soderbergh to go back to making more watchable films. Court adjourned; it's time to go find a plastic baggie.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
• Commentary by Director Steven Soderbergh and Writer Coleman Hough
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