Maybe if we all chip in, we can pay Steven Soderbergh to make fewer films. Heresy, of course. Yet you can admire his energy and eclecticism and still feel that one top-notch 2009 effort would have been better than the two middling movies we got.
Both rework earlier movies in his catalogue: The Informant! is Erin Brockovich replayed as a dark farce, while The Girlfriend Experience shows sexuality is still as confused as it was in sex, lies and videotape.
Nowhere near as steamy or thought provoking as its predecessor, Soderbergh’s look at the life of a New York high-end hooker is a slick, chilly piece, where everything from its semi-documentary visuals to its flat, improvised dialogue plays out in monotone.
Porn princess Sasha Grey’s cool, affectless performance as the $2,000-per-hour dreamgirl Chelsea, juggling clients, ambitious boyfriend and a pervy online ‘escort reviewer’, is resolutely detached. So much so, you wonder whether she’s a) signalling her character’s alienation or b) signalling she can’t act. Soderbergh’s camera has a Godardian obsession with her guarded face that, along with the fiddly non-linear narrative, is about as ‘experimental’ as it gets.
None of these indie twiddles can disguise the fact that the film’s premise is as thin as its protagonist and its moral (we’re all selling ourselves, apparently) less than startling.
By contrast, The Informant! is a warmer, wily black comedy, based on the true story of how ’90s agribusiness executive Mark Whitacre blew the whistle on industry price fixing to the FBI, while deluding himself and his handlers about his own dodgy deeds. Damon is superb as the pudgy, plausible and faintly pathetic hero, weaving a tissue of lies while imagining himself a hero. Like Chelsea, he’s a relentless narcissist trying to control an unruly life – but Damon’s funny-sad portrait of a bullshitter draws us in, where Grey’s impassivity shuts us out.
But a tip-top character is all we’re left with, in the absence of a grabby plot. After the nth fib is uncovered, you hunger for a smart switcheroo as in A Beautiful Mind or some Catch Me If You Can tension. Soderbergh works overtime to put us inside Whitacre’s brain, adding a hilariously banal interior monologue (“How do polar bears know their noses are black?”) and a retro Marvin Hamlisch spy-caper score to illustrate his wonky inner world.
Yet, as with The Girlfriend Experience, underneath the layers of intellectual and visual window-dressing lies just a one-message movie. He fibbed for gain, she fucks for it. Simple as that.
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