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Full Frontal: Soderbergh's riff on film vs. life indulgent, fun

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Julia Roberts and Blair Underwood are part of the large ensemble in Full Frontal.

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Someone, I forget who, once said that Tom Cruise is so hot he could deliver his dental records to Paramount and they'd happily release it on 2,500 screens. I wonder if Steven Soderbergh ever heard that, because his latest film, Full Frontal, is not so much a movie as it is an audacious, indulgent, and unnecessary exercise in toying around with a digital videocamera. It's also a lot of fun.

He made it because A) he's the hottest director in Hollywood, and B) he can. He brought along Julia Roberts (looking like Jane Fonda in Klute), David Hyde Pierce, David Duchovny, Mary McCormack, Blair Underwood, and the spitfire herself, Catherine Keener, and they just kind of messed around, coming up with a loosey-goosey story about the layers of reality that separate life from movies.

I'm reminded of that scene in The Player when Tim Robbins tells a table full of Hollywood friends that they are all intelligent adults and should be able to talk about something other than the movies, and no one can think of a thing to say. You get a sense Soderbergh is like this.

Indeed, when Full Frontal begins there are no opening credits - well, none for Full Frontal. Instead we see a slick studio movie called Rendezvous, complete with its own set of opening credits. Cut to an airport lounge and Roberts plays Catherine, a features reporter interviewing a rising star (Blair Underwood). He's making a movie with Brad Pitt (who plays himself and seems to have a great time, too).

Cut to Los Angeles and we find out Catherine is actually being played by a Julia Roberts-like megastar named Francesca Davis. You got that? It's a movie within a movie, within a movie. You can tell what's what because Rendezvous is shot on smooth 35 mm and the rest of Full Frontal is grimy digital video.

Keener plays Lee, the head of a human resource department that's downsizing. Before she fires people she asks them to stand on one foot and play catch with an inflatable globe while naming as many countries in Africa as they can in 60 seconds. Pierce plays her husband. He's a magazine writer who gets fired after his boss tells him that he is confusing his personality quirks with personal standards.

Spinning around this Robert Altman-like tableau is McCormack as a hotel masseuse and Duchovny as a Hollywood producer throwing a party that will bring all these disparate characters together under one tent. What everyone shares in common, you see, is a desire to connect with something genuine. The problem is, they live in L.A.

If that sounds mighty serious, or mighty trite, forget it. Full Frontal is not somber or anxious to break new ground. What we have here is a bona fide curiosity, the movie equivalent one of those letters families annually mail out to friends and relatives, letting us in on what they've been thinking.

As one of Soderbergh's characters says here - a character, incidentally, dressed as Hitler - “I'm taking a swim in Lake Me.”

That's Full Frontal in a nutshell. If anything, it suggests Soderbergh is as happy, and as rich, an acclaimed filmmaker as we have.

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