The Full Monty 

Full Frontal offers sex, lies and digital video

Steven Soderbergh included the tongue-in-cheek credit "And Introducing Julia Roberts" in his remake of Ocean's 11 last year. The Oscar-winning director's latest film, Full Frontal, seems to come primarily from the side of his brain that provided that joke. A look at a day in the life of disparate Los Angelenos, Full Frontal has a sharply satirical streak, although it's hard to be sure exactly what Soderbergh is satirizing. After a slideshow-style introduction of the main characters, we see the credits and first scene of Rendezvous, a film-within-the-film in which a journalist (Julia Roberts) interviews a black TV actor (Blair Underwood) on a plane en route to Hollywood. Full Frontal cuts back and forth between Rendezvous, which was shot on sleek film stock, with scenes from the "real world," which Soderbergh films on grainy digital video.

In the world "outside" of Rendezvous, we follow people with both overt and indirect connections to the production. One of the film's writers, Carl (David Hyde Pierce) is a magazine journalist consumed with personal doubts. Carl's wife Lee (Catherine Keener) is apparently on the verge of her own nervous breakdown, and as a corporate vice president of human resources, she plays mind games with the people she fires. Lee's sister (Mary McCormack) is a love-lorn masseuse contemplating a hook-up with Ed (Enrico Colantoni), whom she's met over the Internet, and who happens to be Carl's co-writer.

Everyone goes about their daily business while preparing for that evening's swank birthday party of Gus, Rendezvous' producer. We even hear the characters speak in heavily improvised voice-overs, which sound like airy musings to their therapists. Much of Full Frontal's dialogue consists of abstract blather about relationships and show business. It's also full of trivial, water-cooler chat, like how to take the name of your first pet and the first street you lived on to come up with your "porn name."

Soderbergh has called Full Frontal a kind of sequel to sex, lies and videotape for both its use of low-tech filmmaking materials and its attention to "human connections," which is one of those themes that encompasses everything and nothing. It's rather similar to Time Code, in which the style of the film's creation is far more interesting than the self-conscious navel-gazing of its cast.

It's entirely possible, though, that Soderbergh is offering a deadpan goof on those kind of films, as Full Frontal has a lot of fun with movies and their makers. The lead of one of Soderbergh's previous films shares the plane with Underwood and Roberts. When Soderbergh himself has a cameo, he "disguises" himself by superimposing a huge black box over his face. Screenwriter Coleman Hough has a good ear for L.A. name-dropping: "I was reading this interview with Al. Pacino."

Full Frontal's laughs go a long way to redeeming its pretensions. We see Ed working on a stage play that looks quite literally like Springtime for Hitler only with a high-strung method actor (Nicky Katt) instead of a flower child in title role.

One of the few things the film takes seriously is the restraints on black sexuality in mainstream movies. Underwood delivers a rap on the subject, which includes a line about how "Denzel can't get a kiss under a pelican moon." He's referring to how Denzel Washington's kissing scene was removed from The Pelican Brief -- and delivering the line to Washington's co-star, Julia Roberts herself. Later, Underwood has an actual liaison with a white woman, and Soderbergh captures it from a blurry distance, so we can't tell what we're seeing, in part for erotic ambiguity, in part to score a political point.

Full Frontal's most effective moments seldom rise above the level of acting exercises, and the film is so jokey that it's difficult to take its dramatic moments seriously. When we watch Roberts hector her personal assistant, are we meant to make value judgments about her character? Or merely refer back to her other Hollywood-centric roles in Notting Hill and America's Sweethearts? Soderbergh replies by winking through his camera lens.


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    • Local band Manchester Orchestra, who provided the soundtrack, probably would have appreciated a shout-out.

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