DIRECTED BY: Steven Soderbergh
FEATURING: Steven Soderbergh, Betsy Brantley, David Jensen, Mike Malone
PLOT: A series of absurdist sketches and nonsense dialogues linked together by a thin plot
about an office worker struggling with an assignment to write a major speech for a cultlike motivational speaker obviously based on L. Ron Hubbard.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Hilarious witticism characterizing film’s oddness. Cautious disclaimer suggesting uneven satire undermines enjoyability, but granting nobility of purpose and peculiar appeal. Self-aggrandizing non sequitur.
COMMENTS: After Schizopolis bombed at Cannes, writer/director/star Steven Soderbergh appended a prologue where he stood on a stage and introduced the film. “In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours,” he advised. “You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything.” We are then thrown into the story of Fletcher Munson, a chronic office masturbator suffering from writer’s block as he attempts to pen a speech for “Eventualism” founder T. Azimuth Switters. A third of the way through the movie he meets (and sort of becomes) his exact double, an amorous dentist named Korchek who happens to be having an affair with Munson’s wife, but Korchek (or is it Munson inhabiting Korchek’s body?) falls in love with Munson’s wife’s doppelgänger, Attractive Woman #2. Then, in the movies final act we see the same scenes replayed from the perspective of Mrs. Munson. Interspersed with all of this are bits involving a pantsless old man running away from a pair of orderlies, news reports suggesting Rhode Island has been sold to a consortium of investors who want to turn it into a shopping mall, and a shot of a sign posted on a tree reading “idea missing.” Oh, and there’s also an exterminator who speaks gibberish and seduces local housewives. What’s there to possibly be confused about? Sorerbergh, who started his career with Sex, Lies and Videotape, the movie that launched the indie filmmaking revolution, made Schziopolis as a palette-cleanser after his big budget flop Underneath left a bad taste in his mouth (a fan cleverly described this as Soderbergh’s “second first film“). Working with his friends on a budget of only $250,000, it’s a loose, breezy, seemingly improvised movie. You can sense the crew cutting loose and having fun making it; in fact, you sense they’re having more fun making it than you’re having watching it, but their enthusiasm is infectious. The main running joke revolves around communication breakdowns between men and women: a husband and wife’s rote pleasantries are rendered with abstract literalism (“generic greeting,” “generic greeting returned!”) and another couple exchange nonsensical double entendres (“nose army… beef diaper?”), while later in the film male characters’ lines are dubbed into untranslated Japanese, Italian and French. The movie never develops an overarching theme, however, and always comes across as a series of sketches. The experience is something like watching a feature film made by a television comedy troupe recycling favorite bits and characters when you never saw the original shows. Sorderbergh, who plays the two main roles, turns out to be a surprisingly competent comic actor, and there are enough ideas thrown out to keep adventurous audiences watching. It’s basically a postmodern goof, light entertainment for smart, weird people; a curious frolic by a director who quickly returned to more conventional material.
Schizopolis, which had trouble landing a distributor and sank like a stone on release, was a surprise pickup for the Criterion Collection. The Criterion edition isn’t as packed with extra material as some of their other releases, but it does contain two separate commentary tracks. The first is a conversation between four cast and crew members which is informative but standard, but the other commentary is a very cool treat. On it, Sorderbergh interviews himself, pretending to be a pretentious auteur with a God complex while simultaneously taking the role of an increasingly exasperated interviewer. In the course of the conversation the fake Sorderbergh divulges his second career writing novels under the pseudonym “Stephen King,” explains how he thinks it will be more interesting for people to hear him talking about his artistic process rather than focusing solely on his influence on other filmmakers, and reveals how he strives to create a comfortable atmosphere on set where people will not be too intimidated to compliment him. He also takes calls on his cell phone while recording the commentary. At one point, he says, “I’m all for free speech and all that s**t, but I don’t think there should be critics. I just don’t think it’s right for people to be able to publish their responses to art, especially great art.” Sorderbergh’s self-parody here is brave and brilliant, and I can honestly say this is the first comedy I’ve seen where I laughed harder at the DVD commentary than at the movie itself.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
(This movie was first nominated for review by John, who described it as “strangely… funny.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)