Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Another experiment from Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience" clocks in at 77 minutes, but can feel just as meticulous as his last opus, "Che," which ran for more than four hours. Though completely different on the surface, "The Girlfriend Experience" and "Che" share at least one common characteristic. Both movies deal with controversial subjects without necessarily expressing a strong point of view. Observant to the point of tedium, "Che" chronicled the ups and downs of guerrilla warfare in Cuba and Bolivia. "The Girlfriend Experience" takes a lingering look at the life of a young woman who works as an escort in Manhattan.

Clearly, Soderbergh doesn't shy from films with an experimental flavor. The best of these small films, "Bubble" (2005), made terrific use of a non-professional cast to create a murder mystery involving workers in an Ohio doll factory. In "The Girlfriend Experience" -- which stars porn star Sasha Grey -- Soderbergh pours his ingredients into an upscale test tube, presenting a slice of New York life in a moment of economic crisis. In the world of "The Girlfriend Experience," money rules. Money also seems to deaden everything, substituting style for life. That's a timely enough observation, but the movie never quite clicks, perhaps because it doesn't demand that we feel much of anything about its characters.

Setting his story during the last presidential election and on the eve of our current economic downturn, Soderbergh takes a look at a society in which business seems to be the only real form of communication, and in which prostitution serves as a metaphor for the ways in which everything has been commercialized -- from sex to fitness to companionship.

Grey's Chelsea works as an escort, but she tries to give full value for her services. She listens to her "dates," relates to them as people and even entertains the idea that one of them might portend a special kind of relationship. Although it shifts around in time, "The Girlfriend Experience" tries to follow Chelsea as she goes about her business while also attempting to maintain a relationship with her live-in boyfriend (Chris Santos), a young man who works as a personal trainer. He's also busy trying to expand his business.

Chelsea eventually learns something about the perils of criticism, subjecting herself to a review by a sleaze merchant (former film critic Glenn Kenny) who runs a Web site called The Erotic Connoisseur. Soderbergh's deadpan approach mirrors the soulless quality of the society he's depicting, but it doesn't make for the most involving of movies. And for a movie that tackles the corrupting seductiveness of capitalism, "The Girlfriend Experience" can feel devoid of committed passion.

The movie makes you wonder -- not so much about its characters, but about Soderbergh himself. With both "Che" and "The Girlfriend Experience" I found myself hoping to reach the place where craft stops and art begins. If that's the measure of success, both of Soderbergh's recent experiments intrigue but ultimately fizzle.


"The Girlfriend Experience" opens Friday. If you're looking for an art-house movie to tide you over, you'd do well try "Lemon Tree." The movie -- by Israeli director Eran Riklis -- opened in Denver last week and features a remarkable performance by Hiam Abbass, an actress who was born in Nazareth but who now lives in Paris. Abbass plays a widow who's trying to preserve a lemon grove from Israeli security forces. The Israelis want to cut down the grove because it borders on the property of Israel's defense minister (Dorn Tavory) and, in their view, represents a threat to his security. The situation can feel a bit contrived, but the depth and humanity of Abbass' performance compensates nicely.

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