review by Cynthia Fuchs, 2 August 2002
Zen of Brad Pitt
early morning, Nicholas (Blair Underwood) leaves his white-on-white
bedroom and heads to JFK. There he meets Catherine (Julia Roberts),
a reporter doing a major magazine feature on him. They fly to L.A.,
where he's shooting a film with Brad Pitt; as she probes him about
his role, Nicholas talks about his career moves and his choices,
then fesses up: he's playing "the sidekick." During the
cross-country flight, they eat and talk, and he starts thinking
she's falling for him, mostly due to a letter on red stationary he
finds in his seat, a note in which the writer declares desperate and
undying love for him. The more emphatically she says that she didn't
write the note, the more he thinks she's his secret admirer ("I
am onto you, girl!"). And so on.
Steven Soderbergh's Full Frontal, Nicholas and Catherine are
characters in a movie-within-the-movie called Rendezvous,
played by actors named Calvin and Francesca. In Rendezvous,
they appear on 35mm and Catherine wears a wig. When they're not in
the movie, they're on video, grainy and handheld, you know, gritty
and "realistic." Calvin and Francesca hardly speak. In Rendezvous,
Nicholas and Catherine are headed toward a corny romance, pushed
along, apparently, by Nicholas' lengthy speech about the lot of
black men in the business: no sex scenes, especially with white
costars like, say, Catherine-Francesca-Julia. "Can't a brother
get some love?" he asks, riding in the studio car taking them
to the movie set. "That's the state of being a chocolate
leading man in Hollywood today."
by contrast, is getting some love, most visibly from his white
mistress, Lee (Catherine Keener), a personnel director. Or rather,
not very visibly, as their afternoon tryst is shot in blurred out
video, so the figures' races and lusty passions are clear, but their
faces are unrecognizable. You only see who they are -- or rather,
who Lee is, as Calvin is the only black man in Full Frontal
-- when they're done, bickering their way to a break-up. Can't a
brother get some love? It turns out that Calvin does have a steady,
Lucy (Erika Alexander), who has little to do except show up at a
party scene late in the film and watch Calvin kiss a little industry
the question hangs over the rest of the film, which is about white
folks feeling bereft and beleaguered in their privileged existences.
Lee's distress reaches a kind of boiling point when Calvin drops
her, but she's so cruel to her own employees earlier in the day (her
assignment for the day that takes up Full Frontal's time is
to perform a "bloodbath") that even her meltdown is less
moving than troubling. Her sister, Linda (Mary McCormack), is a
masseuse to wealthy Beverly Hills types, including the producer of
the moment, Gus (David Duchovny), posing as Bill and offering money
for a hand-job. Lee is married, vaguely unhappily, to Carl (David
Hyde Pierce), a writer for Los Angeles magazine, which
apparently runs a Brad Pitt cover every month. Not only is Carl
responsible for the dreck that is Rendezvous; he's also
working on another script with his writing partner, Arty (Enrico
Colantoni), currently directing a play they've written, The Sound
and the Führer, with an annoyingly supercilious actor playing
Hitler (Nicky Katt).
by Soderbergh and his frequent collaborator Coleman Hough, Full
Frontal is a smug movie about smug characters in a smug
environment. On one level -- and it has many too-clever levels -- it
explores the tensions between reality and fiction in film, the
ostensible appeal of "realism" and the arrogant folly of
it. On another, it works themes from 1989's sex, lies &
videotape, including sex, intimacy, desire, and fear. On
another, it's more of Soderbergh's own Me Show, as when you notice
that, on Nicholas and Catherine's plane, across the aisle, sits
Wilson (Terence Stamp), the ferocious anti-hero of The Limey.
He appears here in an insert from that film, just as The Limey
so famously included inserts from another Stamp film, 1967's Poor
Cow. So wily, so multi-layered!
on yet another level, it's all about Acting with a capital A. In
casting Full Frontal, Soderbergh issued a list of rules:
actors had to provide their own costumes, makeup, and meals, and
they had to come up with in-character answers to interview questions
he asked during the eighteen-day, $2 million shoot. These interviews
are run as voice-over in several scenes. It's all so low budget, so
arty, so penetrating. And so smug.
manifest self-satisfaction makes Full Frontal's gears grind.
While you're watching, you may be inclined to think that the
melodramatic plot and silly characters are deliberate devices, such
that the absurdity and annoyingness of the "real" (video)
sections comment doubly (or triply, as there is yet another layer of
film-within-the-filmness here) on the absurdity and annoyingness of
the "unreal" (film) sections. So, Hitler
"really" is a jerk, and he mistreats his director as well
as his girlfriend. Hence, he has no name except "Hitler."
Or, you might think, Francesca is a shallow movie-star-diva because
she picks at her tuna fish sandwich and orders her lackey to bring
her wet-naps. Not exactly an original observation of a star, but
okay. Then, she meets someone small, an extra from her past, and she
treats him well, apparently glad to meet someone who knew her before
she was a shallow movie-star-diva. Gee, Francesca's not
"really" so bad after all. Her egotism and condescension
are a self-preserving illusion.
you watch Lee resist her dull but stable marriage to a decent man
and pursue an exciting but cheerless liaison with a vain one and
conclude that she must be "damaged." Just in case you need
some help in that deduction, Carl's voice-over lays out that she is
genuinely troubled, owing to a childhood trauma: "She's like a
dog that was hit by a car. She's still walking, but some very
important things inside her are damaged." In other words, Lee's
meanness and insecurity have "real" causes, so maybe she's
not so bad, either. Maybe Carl can save her, after all.
and common, these storylines might appear to be glosses on the
pretentiousness and commonness of most movie storylines. And that's
one way to read Full Frontal, as an unoriginal but somewhat
ambitious self-parody. Soderbergh, however, says otherwise, and if
this is more of the parody, it's pretty good, or at least good
enough to get over on the New York Times' Elvis Mitchell.
Soderbergh has Mitchell believing that the film explores levels of
"reality," that it's a small-scale consideration of the
"pact" between viewers and films. In this light, he says,
it is, like all his films, about "our efforts to connect."
(Um, whose efforts?) Here, much as in Soderbergh's other movies,
these efforts are at cross-purposes, resulting in repeated
frustration and occasional revelation.
Soderbergh thinks the film is doing, however, is pretty much beside
the point. Its layering of fear and intimacy, realness and
unrealness, does indeed recall sex, lies & videotape (the
film that he and Miramax evoke by opening Full Frontal on the
same date, thirteen years later), namely, the ways that deceptions
(playing roles, fabricating stories, preserving fantasies) sustain
as well as spoil relationships, the ways that they are integral to
is also one of Soderbergh's celebrated "alternate"
projects -- the "little" ones he makes in between the Erin
Brockoviches and the Oceans Elevens -- in order to remind
everyone that he's not just a skilled mainstream director, but also
thoughtful and self-conscious, an artist who recognizes the ugly
effects of his chosen business. What this new film doesn't seem to
acknowledge is its own participation in such effects. Even at its
smartest, Full Frontal points out the obvious: celebrity
culture is unreal, reality is contrived, and movies provide
sustenance. Does anyone really worry about this anymore?
the banality of these observations, it's either ironic or little
wonder that the film's least pretentious appearance is Brad Pitt's.
He plays the cop to whom Calvin's Nicholas plays sidekick, and he
shows up a couple of other times on Los Angeles magazine
covers, hanging in Carl's office, with headlines like, "The Zen
of Brad Pitt." When Pitt is moving on screen, it's mostly on
playback video: he runs to the camera, through a smattering of
passersby ("Outta the way!"), chasing some unseen criminal
for his cop-buddy flick, directed by David Fincher. Calvin/Nicholas
puffs along beside him. Before you can ask, "Can't a brother
get some love?" director Fincher is bestowing much of it on
Brad Pitt, so full of Zen, and ignoring the sidekick. The moment is
as "real" as Full Frontal movie gets.
David Hyde Pierce
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
or adult guardian.