Like George Clooney says in Ocean’s Eleven, do the math: four Canon XL1 digital cameras, one dual 800 MHz Power Mac G4, editing software Final Cut Pro 3, eighteen shooting days, a $2 million budget, one Best Director Oscar-winner and nine high-profile actors (among them Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, David Duchovny, Catherine Keener and David Hyde Pierce) who drove themselves to the set, did their own hair, brought their own meals, improvised most of their scenes and worked for pennies on the dollar. The sum is the kind of guerrilla-style project in which a former indie revolutionary indulges after a string of big-budget movies (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven) and a golden statue on the mantel — a goof only masquerading as a “return to roots.”
That doesn’t diminish the copious rewards of Steven Soderbergh’s wry and capricious Full Frontal, a movie that includes Nazis doing the pop-and-lock and Brad Pitt playing Brad Pitt playing Brad Pitt in a slick and dopey Seven remake. It’s too much fun and too full of itself to take seriously — Soderbergh copping a Kevin Smith, rounding up his pals for a movie about a movie about a movie.
By the time Jeff Garlin, who plays Larry David’s manager on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, shows up playing Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein, the whole thing reeks of an in-joke that only a handful will get. Not that there is much of a payoff; the delight of Full Frontal is in its parts, most notably one rather erect private part sprung like a tent pole from Duchovny’s lap.
Those who would insist that Soderbergh is paying penance after cashing the majors’ paychecks miss the point. Full Frontal is less a sequel to sex, lies, and videotape than a nasty/loving lampoon of what that film begat: cheapo movies by indulgent directors shooting outlines and archetypes rather than fully realized stories with fleshed-out characters.
Myriad characters, all tied somehow to the entertainment business, wander around Los Angeles during a single day and wind up on the L’Hermitage hotel rooftop for the fortieth birthday of movie producer Gus (Duchovny). A gang-bang of celebs play Regular Folk and Real Famous trying to figure out the Meaning of It All, only to discover there’s no significance to anything they touch. That’s because deep down, there is no deep down to any of these people; they’re shallow, hollow, self-important, vain and utterly delusional. Of course none of them exists, because as Soderbergh keeps reminding us, this is only a movie.
There’s Francesca (Roberts), an actress who forces her personal assistant to break up with her boyfriends for her; Carl (Pierce), a writer who envies the homeless their full heads of hair; Lee (Keener), Carl’s wife and a human resources exec who hilariously humiliates those she’s about to fire; Calvin (Blair Underwood), an actor making a movie in which he plays an actor; Arty (Just Shoot Me‘s Enrico Colantoni), a playwright-actor looking for Internet love; and Linda (Mary McCormack), Lee’s sister and a masseuse who refuses to provide a “happy ending.” Add to the mix two filmmakers playing filmmakers (Soderbergh and Fight Club‘s David Fincher) and Terence Stamp playing himself and his character from Soderbergh’s The Limey, and you wind up with a movie so self-referential it ought to come with footnotes.
Soderbergh, working loosely from a script by first-time writer Coleman Hough, not only sneaks in references to his movies but also allows the actors to comment on their own films. You feel like you’re watching a movie review. We get the joke, but only because that’s all Full Frontal is: a brilliant gag at the expense of those who paid for it and those who pay to see it.