It was not among the Christmas care packages Miramax sent to critics compiling Top 10 lists and Academy Award voters filling out ballots; it was Miramax boss Harvey Weinstein's bastard child, no beloved prodigal son like Chicago or Gangs of New York or even Comedian and Tadpole, copies of which were kindly shrink-wrapped and sent for "your consideration" when the year-end accolades were being doled out like shrimp cocktail at an Oscar bash in Iowa. Not so long ago Steven Soderbergh was the belle of Oscar's golden balls when he took the Best Director statue for Traffic, beating only himself for Erin Brockovich. Little more than a year ago, those who weren't cynical enough to dog a man for having a good time with good friends over good booze were digging his Ocean's Eleven, a nifty bit of HollyVegas razzle-dazzle. Funny how the cheers fade and catcalls (and yawns) erupt when a filmmaker of crowd-pleasers returns to his roots for brain-teasers: Soderbergh managed to make pennies on the dollar with both Solaris (his 2002 space odyssey) and Full Frontal last year, proving how fickle audiences can get when asked to do more than sit down and shut off for a couple of hours.
Full Frontal, out on DVD this week, was Soderbergh's sly way of poking fun at those indie navel-gazers still moping in his Sundance shadow. Shot on digital video, it was one of those rare movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movies that didn't get lost up its own ass--unlike, say, a Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back or even an Adaptation. It worked because its joke had a punch line, because it didn't exist solely for the amusement of its makers; it didn't keep admiring itself in the reflection of a movie screen. Beneath the grainy footage and wide-screen trickery were stories about lonely people in a lonely town of moviemakers and fakers. They weren't all likable (most were pitiable) but somehow you felt for these people, even Catherine Keener's soul-on-ice HR exec who forced the nearly fired to perform stupid human tricks to keep their gigs.
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The DVD's every bit as good as the film; it's loaded with extras worth being labeled "special features," among them wry commentary tracks from Soderbergh and writer Coleman Hough, Soderbergh-conducted interviews with actors in character and hidden-camera footage capturing Julia Roberts and others admitting, hey, they didn't get the movie the first time they read the script either. For once, the deleted scenes (all 16 of them) merit inclusion, because nothing's more priceless than the moment Blair Underwood, playing an actor playing an actor (yup), asks of Nicky Katt's Führer, "Why does Hitler have an attitude?" (Indeed, all the scenes with Katt are brilliant; you haven't lived till you've heard Adolf answer his cell phone with a, "S'up, dog?") The deleted scenes are so good, in fact, you wonder whether the film might have been better received had some, if not all, been left in; they flesh out a skeletal story, add depth to relationships that initially seemed tangential and would have turned a slap into a slug. Most DVD extras feel like cheap add-ons tacked onto low-rent product; the new X-Men 1.5 disc, also out this week, is almost disgraceful, two discs that add up to zero content, including sneak-peek footage of the sequel that's hardly worth a glance. Still, it'll sell a ton, Full Frontal will move dozens, and it would be a damned shame if no one ever saw David Duchovny pitch a tent, David Hyde Pierce revive a stoned puppy or Adolf Hitler bust a move.