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(2002) (Blair Underwood, Julia Roberts) (R)

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Drama: Various people in and around the Hollywood scene get on with their lives and prepare for a party in this story where reality is not what it always seems.
In a movie where things aren't always what they initially seem to be, Calvin Cummings (BLAIR UNDERWOOD) and Francesca Davis (JULIA ROBERTS) are two Hollywood stars appearing in a film where they play Nicholas, an actor, and Catherine, the reporter who's following him around.

The film is apparently written by Carl Bright (DAVID HYDE PIERCE), a magazine editor, and Arty Dean (ENRICO COLANTONI), a theater producer who's putting on a stage show, "The Sound and the Fuhrer," with a pretentious actor (NICKY KATT) playing Hitler. Carl's wife, Lee (CATHERINE KEENER), is a V.P. of human resources who hates her marriage, job and life, and constantly belittles her sister, Linda (MARY McCORMACK). She's a masseuse whose client list includes Gus (DAVID DUCHOVNY), a Hollywood producer who wants something more than just a massage from her.

As the day and then evening wears on and many of the players prepare for a party thrown by Gus, their various stories and lives intersect.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
By its very nature and due to necessity, Hollywood is a creature of artifice, magic and deception. Performers often go by stage names that are different from their own and play people other than themselves, while the behind the camera crew strives to creature the illusion of reality from that which is not real.

Most viewers, of course, know and/or realize all of that, but accept it anyway in hopes of being entertained or enlightened for a few hours. Sometimes, films and their creators play with that reality in a self-referential, behind-the-scenes fashion. Other filmmakers, critics and diehard movie fans usually love those sorts of films due to the insider look at the industry and its players, not to mention the inside jokes and/or references.

Popular and acclaimed director Steven Soderbergh ("Ocean's Eleven," "Traffic") obviously seems to be going down that route - and others -- with "Full Frontal." Like others before it, the film plays with what's real and what's not by utilizing the film within the film format.

While some of that is obvious - we're told that the characters played by Blair Underwood and Julia Roberts are actors and we then see them in various scenes from their movie that clearly look different than the rest of the material - other bits aren't. In fact, I'm still not sure exactly what was supposed to be real and what's not, and my fellow critics had the same reaction.

Perhaps that's the intended point of it all, but the end result is that many viewers probably won't be satisfied with the deception/confusion, even with the twist-based revelation that occurs at the very end. That said, that's not the only reason some/many viewers and critics alike will walk away either unhappy or unsure of how they feel about the offerings.

For starters, there's the plot by screenwriter Coleman Hough (making his feature film debut). While there are some funny and amusing moments and bits of dialogue, the basic "day in the life of" story isn't particularly compelling or engaging. That also holds true for the fictitious movie within the movie moments or how they connect to the real bits (whatever they may be) and despite them including the likes of Brad Pitt and Miramax executive Harvey Weinstein showing up.

Then there's the way in which Soderbergh has helmed and visually fashioned the film. Perhaps trying to hark back to his days of old when he was a low-budget, independent filmmaker (delivering the likes of "Sex, Lies and Videotape"), the Oscar-winning director has injected that sort of look into this effort (the only part that looks "normal" and that was shot on 35mm is the Julia Roberts movie within the movie bit).

Unfortunately, the jump cuts and shaky and hand-held camera work do nothing for the film beyond giving it something of a pretentious, forced and self-congratulatory low budget feel. Again, whether that's the intended point is dubious at best, but it's unlikely that viewers will be fooled by or buy into the "Look, I can still make low-budget, independent films" posturing that's more than obviously occurring here.

What keeps the film from being a waste of time and celluloid is the cast and some of the material with which they've been given to work. While Blair Underwood ("Rules of Engagement," "Deep Impact") and Julia Roberts ("Ocean's Eleven," "Erin Brockovich") are the headliners and get the apparent majority of screen time, neither their actor characters nor the ones they play with the movie are terribly interesting, although Roberts' star appeal keeps her somewhat intriguing, at least by inherent default.

David Hyde Pierce ("Wet Hot American Summer," TV's "Frasier") gets a meatier role as a fired magazine editor, while Catherine Keener ("Simone," "Lovely & Amazing") plays an interesting if questionable HR executive with a penchant for asking some oddball and inappropriate questions. Although she once again plays the same sort of cold and standoffish character as she's done in the past, I still get a kick out of watching her go through the motions.

Mary McCormack ("Mystery, Alaska," "Private Parts") plays her masseuse sister who's hoping to meet an off-Broadway producer - Enrico Colantoni ("Galaxy Quest," TV's "Just Shoot Me") - that she met on the Internet. He's putting on a play entitled "The Sound and the Fuhrer" with Nicky Katt ("Insomnia," "Boiler Room") playing a rather amusing actor who embodies Hitler in the stage show.

That part delivers some of the film's more amusing moments (watch for the actors playing the SS officers doing some old Marky Mark moves in the background of a shot during some downtime), while insiders will get a kick out of seeing actor Terrence Stamp (who appeared in Soderbergh's "The Limey") occasionally showing up.

While the various characters' and their stories overlap and intersect from time to time, little of that's done in the sort of entertaining or creative fashion that one would expect from a talented director. That pretty much holds true for much of the film that often feels more contrived -- in an artsy way -- rather than natural. Considering the revelation of the last scene, that may just be the point, but that doesn't automatically mean that the film's any good or even entertaining.

Probably far more enjoyable for insiders and those in the know rather than causal viewers, the film has its moments, but the sum of all of its parts unfortunately isn't greater than or even equal to some of those individual moments. Too conscious of its own self, "Full Frontal" rates as just a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed July 16, 2002 / Posted August 2, 2002

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