Soderbergh's "Experience" provocative but shallow

Wed Apr 29, 2009 2:14am BST

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Steven Soderbergh brought his experimental "The Girlfriend Experience" to Sundance this year as a "work in progress," but the only real difference between that version and the one debuting at the Tribeca Film Festival are the end credits and some needed color correction. Seeing the film a second time, however, does bring its somewhat fractured narrative into sharper focus and further underscores the irony of a mistress of illusion falling prey to the illusion herself.

Because the film concerns an upscale Manhattan call girl played by porn star Sasha Grey, it will entice more than the Soderbergh faithful. Yet this is an experimental film and features very tame sex scenes and only one nude shot of Grey, in a very dark bedroom. So her fans may be irritated by this uptown experience.

Magnolia Pictures will premiere "Girlfriend" on video-on-demand April 30 and release the film May 22 in Los Angeles and New York theaters. The film is the second of six low-budget HD films Soderbergh will make in a deal with HDNet.

Covering five days, the film follows Chelsea (Grey) on several dates as well as off-hours confabs with a girlfriend and, surprisingly, a boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), who is apparently comfortable with his girlfriend's occupation and certainly comfortable with the plush pad the job buys.

Chelsea specializes in the girlfriend experience, acting as a romantic companion at dinners and movies as well as delivering whatever sexual experience the guy wishes. In her diary entries, which are heard on the soundtrack, she records each date: what she wore, how the guy reacted and where they went.

Many scenes revolve around dining and cocktails rather than the bedroom. At one lunch, Chelsea subjects herself to the questions of a journalist -- played by journalist Mark Jacobson -- but the film never explains the interview's purpose. Certainly she is trying to expand her business at a time of economic downturn by conferring with Web site managers and businessmen.

The improvisational film, lightly scripted by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, comes at you in pieces, but not all the pieces are in order. In one crucial subplot, you know the outcome before Chelsea even meets a new client. Sound from one scene can bleed into the next. Dialogue will continue over a new scene, or the movie will return to a scene much later.

The effect is impressionistic and provocative, with the emphasis falling differently on scenes because of our knowledge or lack thereof. It also serves to frame the "girlfriend experience" as a kind of performance art.

How far Soderbergh wants to go with this is unclear. Is he talking about moviemaking? He certainly takes a clear shot at the critical profession by having ex-Premiere film critic Glenn Kenny play a seedy Web site "erotic connoisseur" who persuades Chelsea into favoring him with a performance, then writes a devastating pan on his site.

The film was shot in New York in October as broadcast news reports of the presidential election and the beginning of the government bailout of banks fill the air. Certainly many of Chelsea's business clients offer comments on the market meltdown and advice to her about her own finances. So perhaps the metaphor here has less to do with filmmaking than with capitalism in general.

All characters are thinly sketched. The most intriguing relationship, between Chelsea and Chris, never gets explored with enough depth to shed light on how they compartmentalize sex so glibly. A downbeat ending suggests they really can't, that this too was an illusion that fooled young people who are barely in touch with their own inner lives.