Full Frontal (2002)

Reviewed By Scott Weinberg
Posted 08/02/02 16:44:23

"I was confused, amused, periodically irritated, and generally entertained."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I don’t know precisely what to make of Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal, though that didn’t stop me from enjoying much of it. Whether or not general audiences will rally around this odd little experiment remains to be seen, but there’s no denying that the celebrated director doesn’t feel tied down to the Tinseltown Career Arc.

After a series of smaller movies (some critically successful, a few of which cut a large profit), Soderbergh hit the big time with his stylish adaptation Out of Sight. Despite meager box-office returns, those who DID see the movie generally adored it, which paved the way for an eclectic series of projects for the young director: The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, and Ocean’s Eleven. Now that Soderbergh is ‘financially viable’ in addition to being a movie critic’s new best friend, it seems he can now make any movie he wants – and while Full Frontal is by no means a ‘multiplex flick’, it’s always great to see a moviemaker working on the projects he wants, instead of succumbing to the Hollywood system and becoming just another well-paid hack.

You may not fall in love with Full Frontal, but I doubt Soderbergh could be accused of ‘selling out’. Those hoping that the fascinating director would stay firmly entrenched in the world of big-budget studio flicks may be disappointed, but those who appreciate ‘experimental’ cinema and non-traditional storytelling could find much to enjoy in this one.

Through my eyes, Full Frontal is a periodically clever and generally acidic look at the world of filmmaking. You’ll be halfway through Full Frontal before you’ll figure out which characters are ‘real’ and which ones are starring in the movie-within-the-movie, but it’s a gimmick that works fairly well. It’s clear that Soderbergh wasn’t interested in creating an A to B to C narrative, and what we’re offered is a collection of enjoyably askew characters bouncing into one another, talking, arguing, pontificating, and making movies. If you get a bit confused along the way (as I did, which means I’m eagerly anticipating a second look at the movie), don’t let that ruin the experience; Full Frontal, while probably a bit inaccessible for Ma and Pa Multiplex, offers some solid returns for those willing to put forth a little effort while enjoying the show. It's not exactly a deep movie, but it does offer a few worthwhile challenges.

One trapping of Hollywood success that Soderbergh does bring to the table is a bizarrely colorful cast, one that took this gig knowing full well that A) they’d be paid very little, B) they’d be expected to improvise on the set, and C) this was not about to become some low-budget star-strewn wankfest. You may find yourself scratching your head quizzically as the film unspools, but, at the very least, Full Frontal offers some familiar actors in a few decidedly unfamiliar roles – and that’s always something to see. Sure, a few of the more extemporaneous moments are handled with a ham fist, but there are also several moments where the improv simply shines.

Much attention has been paid to mega-star Julia Roberts’ presence in such a “small” flick, but wouldn’t you know she offers some of her best work ever. I realize that popularity breeds contempt (few superstars earn as much unearned derision as the massively popular Ms. Roberts), but even those who despise the very appearance of Julia may find something to enjoy in her performance here (despite her ridiculous hairdo). Indie-flick superstar Catherine Keener is as brilliant as ever, and if you’re at all familiar with Keener’s past work, you know that’s high praise indeed.

As I sit here looking over Full Frontal’s cast list, I’m reminded that nearly everyone on board is at the top of their game here. I must admit that the movie lost me from time to time, but the overpoweringly entertaining performances by actors like Mary McCormack, Enrico Colantoni, David Hyde Pierce, and Blair Underwood manage to keep the project afloat at every turn. Special mention to one of my favorite ‘relatively unknown’ actors: You may recognize Nicky Katt from Boiler Room, Insomnia, or TV’s Boston Public, but the guy vindicates every word of praise I’ve ever offered him – with a performance nothing short of drop-dead hilarious. (He plays a self-absorbed stage actor trying to create a ‘real’ Adolf Hitler, while failing quite humorously.)

Does Full Frontal basically represent a stunningly successful director trying to return to his roots of “deep-thinking low-budgetry”? Possibly. Could this entire film be a joke played on moviegoers prepared to gush over any film Soderbergh sees fit to create? Maybe, but I doubt it. The movie could also be an indulgent, pretentious and intermittently irritating experiment. Like I said, the movie confounded me a bit, so my opinions are a bit tinged with bemused confusion.

Some of the shots taken at the Hollywood machine are pedestrian at best, while a few of the more interesting in-jokes will prove delightful to hardcore film freaks. I’m betting that this movie will divide audiences right down the middle; some will enjoy what Soderbergh (and first-time screenwriter Coleman Hough) have come up with – others will throw their hands up in the first ten minutes and seethe.

If you cast aside the esoteric issues of budget and commercialism, Full Frontal still doesn’t come close to Soderbergh’s best work, but – as a lopsided and periodically fascinating look at the creative process and the viewers who ruin it - Full Frontal is still worth a look…if only to prove that not all young directors are content to direct moronic sequels and insipid action flicks.

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