Steven Soderbergh goes avant-apeshit in a smart new comedy.

Full Frontal is a baffling film, at least on first viewing, not because it’s particularly complicated, but because its effect runs counter to its presentation. The film was shot by director Steven Soderbergh, from a script by Coleman Hough, in 18 days and on a measly $2 million budget. It’s a studied throwback to the personal filmmaking style of the French New Wave, seemingly off-the-cuff and on-the-run, with some Danish Dogma visual rawness thrown in like an added gloss of audience repellant. This is all a bit much; one would be hard-pressed to come up with a good argument against the inevitable charge of rampant pretension. After all, with its full battery of what are now modernist clichés — hand-held camera, extremely grainy digital video, the structure of a film-within-a-film-within-a-film, multiple characters and interweaving plot strands — how could it possibly go right?

Well, it could go right if it had a director who knew how to breathe some life into the pretense. And Soderbergh is an interesting case. His feature debut, Sex, Lies & Videotape (1989), was an indie-film template, but after five more features and varying degrees of outsider success, he had a genuine mainstream hit with Out of Sight (1998). This was followed by the art-house favorite The Limey (1999) and then the big-time triumvirate of Erin Brockovich (2000), Traffic (2000) and Ocean’s 11 (2001). These last three are examples of a director with ambitions toward formal and visual experimentation reining himself in to serve the old-fashioned virtues of plot and character, while slipping in what stylistic flourishes the stories could bear. Starting with Brockovich, Soderbergh has been working like a mole, a major and original talent assuming the role of reliable craftsman. Small wonder, then, that with Full Frontal he’s decided to punk out, go apeshit and make a film that, first and foremost, indulges his singular talents.

Francesca (Julia Roberts) and Calvin (Blair Underwood) are starring in a film called Rendezvous, directed by David Fincher. She’s an entertainment reporter; he’s a new black star making the transition from television. She’s doing a story on him and their interview scenes are shot in a conventional (and very un-Fincher-like) style. Intercut with these scenes are the rough and grainy sequences that take up the majority of Full Frontal’s running time and involve people who are tangentially connected with the Fincher film. These include Lee (Catherine Keener), a corporate vice president who’s having an affair with Calvin, and her husband Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a writer. There’s also Lee’s sister, Linda (Mary McCormack), a masseuse who has a seriocomic encounter with Rendezvous’ producer, Gus (David Duchovny); and Arty (Enrico Colantoni — so memorable as Mathesar in Galaxy Quest), a playwright who’s been having an online romance with Linda and who is directing an avant-garde play called The Sound and the Fuhrer.

The film-within-a-film stuff could engender all sorts of ruminations about degrees of film reality-unreality, but nobody really cares much about that sort of analytical wanking — including, I suspect, Soderbergh. More to the point, the film(s) is (are) about people connecting or not in the larger context of a satire about LA life. A great deal of coincidence is involved and what the documentary camera and ostensibly loose-limbed plotting just barely conceal is that, at its heart, the project’s a farce. Much of the film is mildly implausible and very funny — mention should be made here of Nicky Katt’s turn as a temperamental actor winging his way through the Hitler role during the Fuhrer rehearsals — and the last 20 minutes or so are surprisingly moving.

Surprising because the film seems to be a lark, a bit of in-your-face derring-do that relishes its own audaciousness. It’s the kind of film that’s going to divide its already small target audience along lines similar to those of Dancer in the Dark, simply because there will always be people who turn their noses up at too-obvious artifice, even when it’s intentional. They’ve sussed out the mechanics of the presentation and so the artiste’s high purpose seems like small change. Which is much too serious an approach.

Being in on the game is part of the fun here and, scene-by-scene, Soderbergh has made the smartest comedy I’ve seen in a long time.

Opens Friday at selected theaters.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].

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