"Don't talk to me, you worm. There was a time when I felt like an old rag with a stain that you couldn't get out. You were like a piece of rotting fruit on a windowsill. And it was great. You worm!"—Mrs. Munson (Betsy Branson), breaking off an extramarital affair with her husband, who has secretly changed places with his dentist double, played (directed and photographed) by her real-life, soon-to-be-ex- husband (Steven Soderbergh)
Steven Soderbergh (left channel): Do you think that this, uh, may be
the silliest film ever made by an Oscar-winning filmmaker?
Steven Soderbergh's career as a movie director took off like a shot in 1989 when he won the coveted Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his first film, sex, lies, and videotape. Almost overnight, the 26-year-old became the poster boy for American independent film. Despite big-budget offers from Hollywood, he instead chose smaller more obscure projects (Kafka, King of the Hill, Underneath), which failed both critically and commercially. After reappearing on Hollywood's radar in 1998 (with the excellent Out of Sight), his career soon took off again, peaking in 2001 when he won the Academy Award for Best Director (for Traffic; he had also been nominated for Erin Brockovich that evening).
In between his early indie career and his later Hollywood success came a curious project called Schizopolis in 1996. This is the type of film that would be described as a "vanity project" if he were to make it today, but at the time, he was a fringe director with a poor track record. For a miniscule budget of $250,000, Soderbergh cast himself, family, and friends (some more than once), and took on the roles of actor(s), writer, director, cinematographer, and composer—a quintuple (or sextuple) threat. The film that resulted never found an audience in the theatre, but has attained a certain cult status on home video. Now, the hallowed Criterion Collection has conferred a spine number on this silliest film by an Oscar-winning director.
Facts of the Case
First a definition. Doppelgänger is a German word which describes a person's double, or non-biological twin. It is a common theme in folklore and studies of the paranormal. This word comes up a lot in descriptions and discussions of Schizopolis, so I thought we better get it out of the way.
The film opens with a prologue: a mock-arrogant Soderbergh appears on the stage of an empty theatre and—backed by cheesy organ music—tells the audience how brilliant the film will be. Part 1 of the film proper begins with a TV commercial advertising an upcoming appearance by the best-selling author, T. Azimuth Schwitters (Mike Malone, playing a character loosely based on L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology fame), at the "Civics Sports Memorial Performing Arts Theatre Dome." Fletcher Munson (Soderbergh) is a underachieving, lower level functionary for the self-help guru who gets an improbable promotion and is asked to write the important speech Schwitters will deliver. Munson and his wife (played by Soderbergh's real-life wife, Betsy Brantley) have a young daughter, but are content to go through the motions of their marriage (in a great touch, they talk in banal descriptions of what they would say, rather than the words themselves).
In Part 2, Fletcher comes face-to-face with his Doppelgänger, a Muzak-loving dentist named Dr. Jeffrey Korchak, and somehow changes places with him, only to find that Fletcher's wife was having an affair with the dentist. Munson moves effortlessly into his life as a dentist, until he's smitten by a patient, Anonymous Woman #2, who just happens to be his wife's Doppelgänger. In between, there's a loosely-related, parallel story about a goggle-wearing pest-control guy, snippets of faux newscasts, a half-naked man being chased my hospital attendants, the comments of a dull critic, untranslated foreign languages, a bouncing golf ball, and several breaches of cinema's "fourth wall." To describe the details would be pointless; to make sense of it would be impossible.
Let me admit up front that I think Soderbergh is an under-appreciated director with enormous versatility and talent. Schizopolis is in no way his best work (which, for me, remains his very first film), but it's a heck of a lot of fun. As an actor, his deadpan delivery is perfect (I'm surprised he hasn't acted in film before or since). His sense of humor runs from slapstick, to social satire, to goofy puns, and jokes worthy of the early Woody Allen films. What to compare this film to? Maybe if you mix together American Beauty (which this film certainly could've influenced) with Office Space, Richard Lester's A Hard Day's Night, Allen's Take the Money and Run, and a pinch of Monty Python, you might come close.
Unfortunately, the rapid cutting, black-outs, and laughs only last through the first two-thirds of the picture. Soderbergh then goes off in a different (and dull) direction for the last third, repeating scenes from earlier in the film, but now from Mrs. Munson's perspective. He has both Munson and Korchak dubbed (in untranslated Japanese and Italian, respectively). As a result, the film loses its rhythm and focus, and especially misses his funny line readings. That said, I laughed out loud frequently during the first two-thirds, and there's at least one great line from near the end. I also think this is a film that improves with subsequent viewing, and works especially well with a group of friends late on a Saturday night.
Outside of Betsy Brantley, there's not a lot of acting experience in this cast (which also features Soderbergh's daughter, father, and sister in cameos), yet, amazingly, it doesn't come off as amateurish. I especially liked Soderbergh's scenes with Eddie Jemison (you'll recognize him from his Budweiser ads from the mid-'90s), who plays the role of Nameless Numberhead Man. For such a low-budget film, the production values are surprisingly strong.
Schizopolis is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced. Since I wasn't one of the 19 people who saw this film in the theatre, it's a bit difficult to judge the quality of the transfer. Soderbergh shot most of the film with different grades of remaindered film stock; some segments are shot with a grainy Super 8. In one scene between Mrs. Munson and the dentist in a darkened room (at 1:19:00), her hair briefly loses all definition (it looks like a solid, monochromatic helmet). I suspect this was a combination of lighting that was too low and the film stock used, but I can't rule out a digital artifact. However, since this is one of Criterion's "Director Approved" releases, it appears that Soderbergh thought it was a true representation of the film. Sound is mono (except for the stereo commentaries), but fairly full given that limitation.
The main extras are two commentary tracks. In the Doppelgänger tradition of the film, the first features a sober Soderbergh (left channel) interviewing his mock-arrogant self (right channel). I'm sure he had a blast recording this, but he doesn't give much insight into the film itself. Five members of the cast and crew mostly provide that insight on a second commentary. I'll admit that this track is partly one of those "gee-whiz, there's Sue Ellen McGee, my third grade sweetheart" kind of efforts, but it's full of fun anecdotes, and a lot of respect for Soderbergh himself.
A little over eight minutes of outtakes are presented under the title "Maximum Busy Muscle!" Like most outtakes, there's a good reason most of these were left behind, though it's fun to see Soderbergh in an afro wig. The animated menu is well done (I wasn't able to find any Easter eggs, which was a bit surprising for a film like this). There are a whopping 49 chapter stops for this hour-and-a-half film. Criterion's design team shines again: there's a slick, eight-page foldout insert featuring an excellent essay from Dennis Lim, the film editor for the Village Voice, along with stills from the film, credits, and chapter descriptions. The cover art is also excellent.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Soderbergh-interviewing-Soderbergh stunt was a clever idea, but it gets old in a hurry. I would've preferred to hear him just riffing on the film out of character. As it is, I can't see listening to it again (but maybe that's true of most commentary tracks).
Schizopolis is a flawed but enjoyable little film that fit my sense of humor like a glove. Despite the Oscar-winning director and "Criterion Collection" on the spine, don't mistake this for a forgotten masterpiece. Even if you come for the social commentary, stay for the laughs.
Criterion is lauded for mixing up their collection with this silly curve ball of a movie, and found innocent of all charges. Puddle Venison! [Court adjourned!]
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