In 1989, the unanticipated popularity of Steven Soderbergh's sex, lies, and videotape helped put the Sundance Film Festival on the map and announced the new era of independent film while catapulting the then-unknown filmmaker to overnight wunderkind status. Now, having captured mainstream Hollywood success with the Oscar-winning Traffic and made even greater gems like The Limey, Soderbergh is revisiting both the thematic and stylistic territory of his debut.
Told in a film-within-a-film structure, Full Frontal depicts a day in the lives of several movie-industry denizens, culminating in the birthday party of a hotshot Hollywood producer (David Duchovny). Julia Roberts plays a reporter interviewing a famous actor (L.A. Law's Blair Underwood). Meanwhile, marital troubles plague an executive (Catherine Keener) and her writer husband (Frasier's David Hyde Pierce), while a lonely playwright (Enrico Colantoni) is too distracted by an upcoming blind date to oversee his production of The Sound and the FŸhrer, a hilarious Hitler sendup. Full Frontal's characters are unified not only by a Hollywood zip code, but also by a primal need for the physical catharsis and emotional consolation of sex--just as in Soderbergh's debut. In Full Frontal, there are many layers of reality and imagination to negotiate, and Soderbergh uncovers them like an ant farm.
With a budget of only $2 million, Full Frontal was made almost exclusively using off-the-shelf equipment: a Canon MiniDV camera and Final Cut Pro editing software. Actors used their own wardrobes and drove themselves to the set, working for a tiny fraction of their normal salaries. The stripped-down production gives Soderbergh's film a slapdash rawness to match the piano-wire nerves of the characters. Many films shot with MiniDV look crystal-clear, but Full Frontal is deliberately grainy and jarring. It's a kind of slumming that some cash-strapped filmmakers will perhaps rightfully sneer at, for Soderbergh is essentially dipping his toe in the low-budget filmmaking approach that for many is the only option. Yet it also works as a kind of cold shower: The fact that Soderbergh still strives to challenge himself like this is why his studio pictures are so much better than most. And if Full Frontal is merely a tossed-off Soderbergh film, it merely confirms the breadth of his filmmaking gifts all the more.