Thirteen years, a Best Director Oscar, and the publicly expressed devotion of Julia Roberts separate Steven Soderbergh’s breakthrough debut, ”sex, lies and videotape,” from Full Frontal, a post-”Ocean’s Eleven” lark in which the influential and voraciously gifted filmmaker rewards himself for having changed all the rules of indie-versus-studio movies by messing around with a camera.
Not that he hasn’t busted loose in all his films, from ”Schizopolis” and ”The Limey” to ”Out of Sight” and ”Traffic”: What’s most exhilarating about the Soderbergh oeuvre (not an altogether too fancy word for a very American artist with French new-wave sensibilities) is the artistic oxygen he pumps through rigorously structured cinematic storytelling. The fresh air invigorates his actors, too — just ask Roberts about her Oscar for ”Erin Brockovich,” or Jennifer Lopez, who did her best work in ”Out of Sight.”
But even by Soderbergh’s standards of serious playfulness/playful seriousness, ”Full Frontal” is a tricky novelty item: The director himself has variously described it as an ”experiment,” an ”exercise,” and a ”sketch.” It’s also the most direct link to the immediacy and what’s-real/what’s-fake philosophical and aesthetic conundrums of ”sex, lies,” a reward bought with the Hollywood equivalent of frequent-flier miles for the director’s great (and profitable) output of the past four years.
Working from a nicely conversational script by playwright, poet, and Soderbergh pal Coleman Hough, Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood play, respectively, Francesca, an actress who stars in the role of a magazine journalist in a project called ”Rendezvous,” and Calvin, her costar who plays an actor playing an actor in yet another movie-within-a-movie. When they’re not on the set, Francesca and Calvin cross paths with colleagues including an unhappy business executive (Catherine Keener), her ineffectual journalist husband (David Hyde Pierce), the exec’s massage-therapist sister (Mary McCormack), and the masseuse’s client (David Duchovny), a producer whose 40th-birthday party gathers everyone together at a Los Angeles hotel. The visual toggles between one-take, unlit, handheld digital video and the glossier film-stock look of the movies-within-the-movie are cues to shifts of artifice. But even the sharpest viewer is liable to — and invited to — lose track of lies and video ”reality,” while accepting the full-frontal fiction on the screen.
This is all fun; certainly it keeps us admiring the director’s talent for invention and excited by the liberated performances of so many favorite actors jazzed by Soderbergh’s trust in their instincts. The movie would be more rewarding, however, and less of a self-contained exercise in style (and performance), were it not so besotted with its own delights and tricks. If ”Ocean’s Eleven” was a high-priced banquet of popular guys toasting one another’s hard-earned coolness in a pointless caper, ”Full Frontal” is the after-party. It’s a low-budget, late-night game of strip poker hosted by a really smart guy who still can’t quite believe how much the popular kids now want to sit at his table.