The Star System
Imagine if we could all get away with the crap that movie stars pull: Instead of tiptoeing back into the office, hoping no one notices that our lunch hour lasted an hour and fifteen minutes because the line at the bank was so damn long, our own personal chef — who is on our employer’s payroll — would prepare a meal exquisitely tuned to our particular dietary needs while we chatted with our personal business manager on the line from Geneva. Instead of sitting in meetings all day, trying to keep our eyes open while Mitch from accounting drones on about AR, we’d lounge in our luxury trailer all day and maybe pop out for a half hour’s worth of work in the afternoon. Instead of biting our tongue to keep from telling the boss what we really think of his “brilliant” ideas, we’d scream at him, informing him precisely which part of his anatomy he should insert into which other part of his anatomy. And we’d get paid sinful amounts of money in the process.
Full Frontal is most notable for the fact that its director, on a lark, decided he wasn’t going to put up with this kind of diva behavior. Steven Soderbergh forced his cast to abide by a set of rules that sound a lot like what you and I have to trudge through every day: Drive yourself to work. Leave your friends at home. Dress yourself. Don’t be a big whiny baby. It isn’t honestly too hard to imagine most of this cast having a major problem with that, except perhaps Julia Roberts and her retinue, but I imagine Soderbergh has racked up lots of brownie points with her since that whole Erin Brockovich/Oscar thing. So she’s here, doing her own makeup. Or so we’re told, anyway. If she can look this good on her own, what does she need a personal stylist for?
Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Coleman Hough, and his improvising cast have woven interconnecting stories about Hollywood players into a raw, emotional tapestry that may have benefited from the no-nonsense atmosphere Soderbergh provided, but I doubt that. Good actors are good actors even if they’re pampered, and this is a terrific cast. David Hyde Pierce’s (Isn’t She Great) Carl is surprisingly poignant in the first non-comedic role I’ve seen him in, as a screenwriter trying to save his marriage to Catherine Keener’s (Death to Smoochy) Lee, who’s slowly having a nervous breakdown, her tough outer skin shedding to reveal an inner vulnerability. Carl wrote a movie currently in production starring Julia Roberts’s (Ocean’s Eleven) Francesca, who’s playing Catherine, and Blair Underwood’s (Deep Impact) Calvin, who’s playing Nicholas; as Soderbergh switches back and forth between their silly, delicately romantic movie and the actors on the set, the pair dance a fine line of Hollywood pomposity and tender egos afraid of failure. Mary McCormack’s (K-pax) Linda, Lee’s sister, is having an email romance with Enrico Colantoni’s (A.I. Artificial Intelligence) Arty, the two of them tentative and charmingly uncertain about embarking on a relationship. Arty, meanwhile, is directing Nicky Katt’s (Insomnia) amusing asshole of a small-time actor in a hole-in-the-wall stage production about Hitler. The entire film takes place within the confines of a single day, leading up to an evening birthday party for David Duchovny’s (Evolution) Gus, who is producing Carl’s film; Duchovny blusters Gus into his momentous 40th with literally naked fear.
Full Frontal doesn’t refer to physical nudity, though, but rather emotional nudity. Hollywood arrogance, Soderbergh wants us to know, is just a shield to protect a lot of really insecure people from the big bad world. Most of us probably already knew that, but the tale is still worth the telling, and maybe it makes us poor slobs on the other side of the movie screen feel a little less like missing out on the good life.
An avatar is born
Andrew Niccol’s been thinking about The Problem With Movie Stars, too, but he’s not yet in a position to tell Julia Roberts to leave her personal stylist at home. So he cast an unknown actress — one probably overjoyed at her first starring role to ask much of anything — to play a computer-generated movie star whose biggest demand is more RAM. It’s The Player, which posited a way for Hollywood to eliminate the writer, meets The Truman Show: eliminating the actor doesn’t do away with The Problem With Celebrities, because the public is endlessly fascinated with anything famous, even if it’s fake. Just ask Lara Croft.
Simone is actually the B-side of Niccol’s Truman Show — instead of a man living, unknowingly, in a fishbowl, this one is about the man who creates the fishbowl for an unwitting public. After an exasperating run-in with a spoiled brat of an actress, film director Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino: Insomnia, The Insider), with a little help from a geeky fan, creates a computer simulation, on film, of a human being so realistic that it fools everyone. Think Jar-Jar to the Nth degree, with a body like a lingerie model. But Simone (Rachel Roberts) is not an AI — she is nothing beyond an empty shell until Viktor gives her voice (disguised and altered by computer, of course) and a hint of his own personality. He is really the one playing her parts in his films, and here comes the recognition he, as director, has always, in his mind, deserved. Too bad he can’t tell anyone the truth.
Niccol cleverly tweaks Hollywood’s delusional obsession with itself and its own lack of perspective — he stages one of Viktor’s rants about the good old days in New York in the 70s on a fakey backlot NYC street scene (ie: the good old days weren’t quite so golden as memories of them). But he doesn’t let the public get away unscathed, either — if pop culture is a vast wasteland, we’re all to blame. Simone becomes an international sensation, and for no good reason — she’s terrifyingly bland, as anything that appeals to the lowest common denominator must be, and just as fake as any silicone-enhanced SoCal bimbo. It would be easy to fault the film for Simone’s lack of charisma — dammit, why does she get so famous? — except that less explicable people get famous all the time.
It does make me wonder about “people” like Pamela Anderson and Tom Cruise, though.