by Ben Kenigsberg
The word in cyberspace was that Steven Soderbergh's latest movie,
, would be an unofficial sequel to his
sex, lies, and videotape
-- or at least a return to the kind of low-budget, witty independent filmmaking that made Soderbergh's name in Hollywood.
To achieve whatever it was he was aiming for, Soderbergh drew up a set of rules for his cast and crew. According to the press notes, actors had to drive themselves to the set, choose their own clothes, eat their own meals, and were told to "have fun whether you want to or not." Improvisation was encouraged. These rules are similar to the ones in the Dogma 95 manifesto, a pact signed by a group of Danish filmmakers in 1995, designed to make cinema more realistic.
That, presumably, was Soderbergh's goal as well, but his film hits the same stumbling block as the Danish films. Dogma films don't look or feel more real than Hollywood films. They feel equally artificial in a different way.
And although improvisation can yield brilliance on occasion, it's not a good idea to use it as a guiding filmmaking strategy. (Cassavetes, it must be said, did it remarkably well.) Improvisation works on stage because the audience is in the theater, sharing the actors' adrenaline. Films are already in the can, so the awkward pauses and digressions of improvisation merely look sloppy. Improvisation can also lead to hopelessly self-conscious acting, of which
has no shortage -- even from a great actress like Catherine Keener, here playing an office efficiency expert who asks her co-workers to name all the countries in Africa while standing on one foot. If a scene that random was actually in the script, the project was doomed from the start.
Soderbergh is reverting to something more primitive than
sex, lies, and videotape
is the kind of unplanned, meandering film that any aspiring filmmaker could make, but that only a big-name director could easily get distributed. Soderbergh has merely placed his actors in vaguely defined comic situations -- the screenplay, what there was of it, was written by Soderbergh's friend Coleman Hough -- and asked them to act.
Sex, lies, and videotape
(1989), on the other hand, felt drawn from life, even though everything from the camerawork to the line readings was carefully calibrated. It was a case of a nobody trying to make a film like a professional.
, on the other hand, is the work of a professional who doesn't have to prove anything and, indeed, doesn't bother trying.
is at least two films in one. The first film, shot on digital video, is about eight or so people who live or want to live in Hollywood. The second film, shot on 35 millimeter and interwoven with the first, is a movie-within-a-movie about a journalist (Julia Roberts) interviewing a budding movie star (Blair Underwood) on a plane ride from New York to Los Angeles.
There's also a movie within the movie-within-the-movie, and perhaps even a fourth level, suggested by
ambiguous and pretentious ending. The 35-millimeter segments are notably boring. I gather that the banality is intentional -- a way of proving that Hollywood films are too neat and tidy to be interesting. But if
, the film-within-the-film, were a real movie, it wouldn't last a week.
Roberts and Underwood play characters in
and actors making
; Brad Pitt plays himself and a small-time actor. Director David Fincher (
) plays a director. The point of all the layering is that movies are not like life, or that life is a movie, or that we wish our lives were movies. Soderbergh hasn't shaped the loose ends into a coherent whole.
The movie reeks of self-indulgence, something that one always suspected Soderbergh, who's never taken a "film by" credit, was above. During one of the scenes on the plane, the camera tilts up to reveal Terence Stamp sitting in the row behind Roberts and Underwood, in exactly the same spot where he sat in Soderbergh's
, reciting exactly the same dialogue. Normally, that kind of directorial wink would be amusing, but in
, the winks don't supplement the substance. They are the substance.
There are a number of good comic sketches. The best is about the character played by Nicky Katt (
), a Tucson actor starring as Hitler in a play called
The Sound and the Fuhrer
. Katt delivers his lines in the play without an accent, stays in character offstage, name-drops Al Pacino and Tom Sizemore, and argues with his director. ("Last week, you told me you wanted to play it like Danny Kaye. This week, you tell me to play it like Alan Alda!") Another good but ultimately pointless thread involves Carl Bright (David Hyde Pierce), a journalist-turned-screenwriter whose dog eats a hash brownie.
was a more incisive Hollywood satire that was able to poke fun at itself without feeling at all forced.
tries so hard to be edgy and unpolished that it never plays as anything other than a technical exercise.
Soderbergh's condemnation of Hollywood filmmaking is hypocritical. Soderbergh has enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Hollywood -- he's arguably the best commercial director working today. His Hollywood products
Out of Sight
were more engaging than
The movie is, at best, a mammoth in-joke -- a film that is undoubtedly more entertaining to those who made it than to those who will watch it. That it got made, though, is a sign that Soderbergh currently has a great deal of carte blanche in Hollywood. I hope he continues to have this sort of freedom. A director as talented as he is can't bask in his pride forever.
The bottom line is that the third
movie is very funny, although it's not as good as the first two films. You can sense the filmmakers straining for jokes. Unlike the other movies,
Austin Powers in Goldmember
does not have a coherent story, presumably because Mike Myers wanted to throw in every gag he could think up. A story would have been too confining.