There's a party being held tonight in honour of movie producer Gus's fortieth birthday and a host of Hollywood movers and shakers are planning to attend. Gus's latest production is a low key drama about a Hollywood star, played by Calvin (Blair Underwood), who is interviewed on a flight to his next location by journalist played by Francesca (Julia Roberts). Is the journalist attracted to the actor despite her penetrating line of probing? That's the main question in the film, but the main question in the film surrounding it is: why should we care about any of these people?
And director Steven Soderbergh, with the writer Coleman Hough, doesn't offer a good answer to that question. This is not the Soderbergh of Ocean's 11, this is the experimental artist who made Schizopolis only here the quirky humour that carried that work is replaced by smug navel-gazing, if it's possible to gaze at one's navel in a smug fashion. Introduced by a series of captions concerning the characters we're about to see, all who are supposed to be going to the party, we're almost immediately plonked down into Gus's film Rendezvous, complete with credits sequence.
That film within a film is inserted throughout the drama (or is it a comedy?) as if to comment on the way that real life Hollywood relationships contrast with their depiction on screen, but Soderbergh takes so many steps back from his material he draws perilously close to the edge of a cliff. The would-be partygoers include executive Lee (Catherine Keener) who is married to journalist Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a man suffering his mid-life crisis just as his wife is enduring hers, but guess what? No, they can't communicate with each other.
Carl's unease is compounded when he loses his job at a glossy magazine, and it seems this day will bring about more disruptions, as Lee's sister Linda (Mary McCormack) finds when she goes to massage a big shot (David Duchovny) and is asked to perform an act that isn't part of her job description, leaving her disgusted. This is one of many instances that make you unsure of how funny you're supposed to find all this, as there are events here that would fit right into a typical Hollywood comedy, such as Carl's pet dog eating his hash brownies, but the handling is off key, as when the plight of the stoned dog is played for tear jerking effect.
There are aspects to Full Frontal (a title that only lives up to its promise in a singularly unappealing way) that have Soderbergh seem to be musing over what a wild and wacky business he has found himself involved with. Carl's neighbour is only ever seen dressed as Bela Lugosi in Dracula costume, and we are treated to a risible play where Nicky Katt is an absurdly up to date Hitler - nice idea, if Mel Brooks hadn't already done it thirty-five years before. There may be flashes of inspiration, such as Underwood's speech about the state of black actors' leading roles, or Brad Pitt's self-mocking appearance as himself, but these happen in the films within the film, meaning the whole thing comes across as insincere and sabotaging any move towards genuine drama. Too clever for its own good is the only verdict to be drawn, plus the video used for much of the filming is notably unattractive. Music by Jacques Davidovici.
Versatile American writer, director and producer whose Sex Lies and Videotape made a big splash at Cannes (and its title has become a cliche). There followed an interesting variety of small films: Kafka, King of the Hill, noir remake The Underneath, Schizopolis (which co-starred his ex-wife) and Gray's Anatomy.
Then came Out of Sight, a smart thriller which was successful enough to propel Soderbergh into the big league with The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Oscar-winning Traffic and classy remake Ocean's 11. When Full Frontal and his Solaris remake flopped, he made a sequel to Ocean's 11 called Ocean's 12, material he returned to with Ocean's 13. Che Guevara biopics, virus thriller Contagion and beat 'em up Haywire were next, with the director claiming he would retire after medication thriller Side Effects and Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra. He returned after a period of even greater activity with heist flick Logan Lucky and his first horror, Unsane.