Watching "Full Frontal," you can't help but ask yourself a key question: Just who is this film for? Abandoning his recent pattern of alternating prestige projects like "Traffic" with commercial products like "Ocean's Eleven," director Steven Soderbergh shoots for a middle ground: a mildly metaphysical rumination on fantasy and truth that's meant to exploit our attraction to celebrity star power.
The result is clever in spots, containing some of the most delightfully acerbic dialogue heard in a multiplex in many a moon. But the movie is undone by a filmmaking methodology that's just experimental enough to alienate the mainstream audience while ringing clichéd to hardened indie-heads. Be prepared for jump cuts, alternating picture formats, layered narratives and a host of other techniques that can only be embraced as avant-garde by viewers who think Jean-Luc Godard was the bald guy on "Star Trek." It's art cinema for dummies.
Playing (moderately) fast and (sort of) loose with our notions of reality, Soderbergh and writer Coleman Hough introduce us to a handful of Tinseltown citizens who are human satellites in the orbit of a powerful producer named Gus Delario. The major players include Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a magazine writer whose entire life is becoming an illustration of Murphy's Law; his vicious wife, Lee (Catherine Keener), who finds cathartic sadism in her human-resources job; and her sister, Linda (Mary McCormack), a massage therapist in danger of being corrupted by show-biz sleaze. Their and other stories are brought together via a birthday party thrown for the mysterious Delario, whose true identity -- like that of much of the film's population -- is open to conjecture. (An end-credit line identifies one character as "Harvey, probably.")
A portion of "Full Frontal" concerns the filming of "Rendezvous," a feature drama about the developing relationship between a TV-stud-turned-movie-actor (Blair Underwood) and a magazine reporter (Julia Roberts). "Rendezvous" is important not because of its content -- as we gradually realize, it's a piece of crap -- but because of the potential masquerade it represents. Are Roberts and Underwood playing movie folk enacting a film within a film? Or could it be that "Rendezvous" itself is a Roberts-Underwood vehicle -- that the stars themselves are characters in "Full Frontal?"
It's not the poser it appears. A clue: The cinematography in the "fake" segments is crystal clear, while the portions meant to denote reality are shot in low-resolution digital video. As the latter sequences outnumber the former, we're left with a film that makes the preponderance of its point by, frankly, looking like hell.
The further "Full Frontal" veers from its own self-importance, the better it gets. There's a hilarious subplot in which a stage actor (Nicky Katt) takes the role of Hitler in a ridiculous play titled "The Sound and the Führer." In the process, he reveals himself as a despot of the neo-Californian, as opposed to Aryan, variety. ("I'm taking a swim in Lake Me," he announces.) His story best illustrates the movie's not-so-revolutionary thesis that the Left Coast fantasy factory pollutes everything it touches. In "Full Frontal," even the characters who work in nonindustry jobs are either star-fuckers or willing to compromise their morals for a quick buck. For all his textual game-playing, though, Soderbergh can't concoct a better recipe for their redemption than to get out of L.A. and find something "real." Roll over, Randy Newman, and tell Godard the news.