Full Frontal (2002)


One 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.

In 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.”

Calvin, 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 ass.

Still, 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 Fuhrer, with an annoyingly supercilious actor playing Hitler (Nicky Katt).

Written 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!

And 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 18-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.

This 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.

Or, 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.

Pretentious 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.

Whatever 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, 13 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 human “connections.”

Full Frontal 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.

Given 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.