Dir: Steven Soderbergh. US. 2002. 101mins.

With a string of commercial successes and a best director Oscar safely under his belt, Steven Soderbergh should perhaps be forgiven for a brief lapse into self-indulgence. But that doesn't make it any less disappointing to see the director of sex, lies and videotape expend his talent on something as flimsy, uninvolving and pointlessly arty as Full Frontal. A fast and cheap (by Hollywood standards) romantic comedy-drama, the film may have started out as a daring experiment but ultimately it comes off like an empty tribute to influences ranging from Jean Luc Godard to the Dogme movement's new generation of DV iconoclasts. Julia Roberts and the rest of the strong ensemble cast will help Full Frontal get a decent start at the US box office when it opens on around 200 screens this Friday (Aug 2). However, mainstream audiences drawn by the talent are likely to find the proceedings frustratingly impenetrable and distributor Miramax will instead have to rely on milking the curiosity of indie cinema aficionados. Overseas, distributors in the international marketplace may have an easier time, given the strength of Soderbergh's reputation and the distinctly continental feel of the work.

Set in and around the Hollywood movie industry, the film follows a day in the lives of five principal characters, each of whom has been invited to the 40th birthday party of movie producer Gus (Duchovny). Carl (Hyde Pierce, from Frasier) is a magazine journalist and screenwriter whose marriage and career are on shaky ground. Carl's wife Lee (Keener, from Being John Malkovich) is a human resources executive who takes out her frustrations as she fires company employees.

Lee's sister Linda (McCormack, from Private Parts) works as a hotel masseuse and worries that she will never meet Mr Right. Calvin (Underwood) is a self-possessed TV star trying to make the jump into features with Gus' new production. And Francesca (Roberts) is Calvin's co-star, an actress looking for love with no Hollywood strings attached.

Poet and playwright Coleman Hough's script (her first to be produced) evolved from pieces written for an acting class and is structured as a series of two-character scenes in which the story's protagonists meet - in various combinations - and attempt - usually unsuccessfully - to emotionally connect. Only at the story's end do most of the characters come together at Gus' swanky party.

Complicating the structure are several layers of films-within-a-film, as the story follows Calvin and Francesca from 'real life' into Gus' movie - about a movie star and a celebrity journalist - and then into the movie within Gus' movie. (Just for good measure, there is also a play within the film, featuring an egomaniacal actor's portrayal of Adolf Hitler.)

To compliment the film's structural complexities, Soderbergh employs a variety of shooting techniques to capture the action. While the film within the film is shot on celluloid, the 'real life' scenes are captured on grainy video shot in natural light with an amateur camera. During his 18-day, no fills shoot Soderbergh also imposed a set of rules on his cast that, among other things, encouraged improvisation and called on the actors to maintain their own wardrobes and make-up.

The structural and technical tricks may make for some fascinating background material for Full Frontal's DVD release. The trouble is, they are used to very little real purpose in the film itself. Soderbergh does manage to evoke some of the stifling ennui that pervades the Hollywood film industry and the dialogue exchanges in Hough's script occasionally achieve a satisfying veracity.

However, the film's examination of the struggle for interpersonal connection never develops into anything more than a vague conception and the dark comedy rarely produces more than a half-hearted chuckle. Hough's characters suggest a few interesting story possibilities but the film's structure prevents any one character from being developed much over the course of the narrative.

The film's performers make game attempts to work with the material and Keener, Hyde Pierce and McCormack do manage to produce a few intriguing moments. Roberts, though (who previously, of course, appeared in Soderbergh's Ocean's 11 and Erin Brockovich), is underused and Duchovny gets only a single scene.

Prod cos: Miramax Films
US dist:
Intl sales:
Miramax International
Scott Kramer, Gregory Jacobs
Coleman Hough
Peter Andrews
Sarah Flack
Paul Ledford
Main cast:
David Duchovny, Nicky Katt, Catherine Keener, Mary McCormack, David Hyde Pierce, Julia Roberts, Blair Underwood