Steven Soderbergh's cinematic version of Spalding Gray's Gray's Anatomy opens with a hokey educational trailer from the 1950s about the crucial nature of good eyesight. It then segues into nine minutes of talking heads jabbering about their sundry unique vision problems: One woman sleeps with her eyes open; another mistakes Super Glue for eye drops and epoxies her eyes shut for several days; a guy gets a wire stuck in his eye but has to finish repairing his brakes before he can drive himself to the hospital. And so on. The montage is entertaining enough, but it has virtually nothing to do with Spalding Gray--who's the point of the movie, remember? It feels terribly like padding for a movie that's only 80 minutes long to begin with.
Gray, the preppy bohemian with the wavy silver hair and flannel shirt, created a certain graceful lunacy with the stage version of Gray's Anatomy, which, alongside Swimming to Cambodia, is his most entertaining monologue. It concerns his panic when he begins experiencing vision problems in his left eye; soon, he discovers he suffers from a "macula pucker," which ostensibly can be resolved only by something called a "macula scraping." He's told that the process may or may not help his vision, but the remedy could end up being worse than the condition. "As soon as I heard that word, scraping," Gray reports reasonably, "I knew I wanted a second, third, and fourth opinion."
From there, despite his lack of insurance, and perhaps sensing he has a whale of a monologue staring him fuzzily in his face (you almost suspect he worked up the monologue so he could write off the doctors' bills as "research"), Gray explores the world of alternative medicine--anything to prevent that much-feared scraping, though another doctor softens it by euphemistically referring to the process as a "macula peeling." He treks to the frozen tundra of Minnesota, standing naked in the snow to experience an Indian sweat-lodge ceremony. He visits an eccentric dietary doctor in New Jersey whose office is a clutter of primitive art--a reason to keep on seeing, the doctor explains, prescribing a diet consisting solely of raw vegetables. Finally, he visits the Philippines to meet "the Elvis Presley of psychic surgeons," an episode that concludes with a hilariously ghastly orgy of blood.
Gray's peculiar ability is the lowest-tech form of entertainment possible, to sit behind a desk and simply talk to his audience. With his earlier filmed monologues, Swimming to Cambodia and Monster in a Box, the directors were secure enough with Gray's material and presence to keep the visual pizzazz to a minimum. Not Soderbergh. He shoots Gray with intense backlighting, in oversaturated light, in silhouette, through windows refracting his image almost pointillistically, blanketed in steam, before giant eye charts and sundry other backdrops.
Ostensibly, Soderbergh is making a highfalutin point about vision and perception and not just desperately trying to give visual juice to a guy sitting in a chair, but while some of his setups make for interesting compositions, mostly they simply detract from Gray's storytelling. And Gray, who usually delivers his monologues in a fairly relaxed manner, accelerating his pace only to make a point, here zips through his performance as if the camera is just a tad undercranked.
Throughout, we also return to the original yammerers with their tales of optical woe, discussing whether they'd try Gray's inventive alternative cures. Who cares? It's just more padding. Then, without warning, Soderbergh stops everything near the end and brings on a couple of new faces to, essentially, review Gray's performance. Again, who cares? More padding.
In order to make room for this stellar material, the monologue has been shaved considerably from the stage version, and perhaps even the order of his misadventures has been slightly altered. The stage version concluded with a wonderfully uplifting sense of Gray's coming to terms with his mortality, which is sadly muted in the film's heavily truncated ending. Because of all this cinematic tinkering, it's tempting to say that Gray is given less of a chance to make an impression here than he did as a memorable bit player in Soderbergh's best film, 1993's King of the Hill. That's not quite the case, but Gray fans likely will be frustrated with Soderbergh's stylistic doodling, while those who would need it to maintain their interest aren't likely to watch this in the first place.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by and starring Spalding Gray. Opens Friday.
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