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movies: "Full" of It

Hard to label and harder to second-guess, "Full Frontal" is Soderbergh's latest adventure in filmmaking.

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Shot over two and a half weeks using a combination of digital video and traditional film, every aspect of "Full Frontal" shouts experimentation. Soderbergh, who most recently crafted "Traffic," "Erin Brockovich" and "Ocean's Eleven," also shot the movie himself, under his cinematographer alias, Peter Andrews. On the other hand, more mainstream moviegoers wouldn't be off the mark to label "Full Frontal" a big-budget, convoluted "in" joke.

A dark ensemble comedy, "Full Frontal" delves into the diverse lives of a gaggle of frustrated young adults in modern-day Los Angeles. As we soon learn, the common connection is their acquaintance with Gus (David Duchovny), a powerful movie producer who's celebrating his 40th birthday. Though often discussed, we rarely see him; Gus may only have one major scene, but the entire story line revolves around him.

Adding to the fun — or the frustration, depending upon your individual threshold for cinematic experimentation — Soderbergh also tells a story-within-a-story. More accurately, the Oscar-winning director presents us with a movie-within-a-movie. Called "Rendezvous," this internal film features movie star Blair Underwood (whose character is also a factor in the film-proper's plotline) being interviewed by journalist Julia Roberts (likewise a player in the main story).

Still with me? OK, now, add to that story/movie yet another movie. Not just any movie, mind you, but a Brad Pitt movie, directed on the screen by David Fincher (who directed two "real" Pitt movies, "Fight Club" and "Seven"). As I said, you've got to watch carefully, keeping your brain fully engaged.

In keeping with the off-kilter nature of "Full Frontal," where nothing is as it appears, Soderbergh keeps us guessing visually by making "real" life blurry and "reel" life clear. Soderbergh/Andrews shoots the real scenes in grainy, hazy digital video; one scene quite literally shot through a peephole. The effect is mixed; sometimes provocative, sometimes irritating. In contrast, "Rendezvous," the faux film, unreels elegantly on traditional, richly defined film stock.

Despite its paradoxical construction, "Full Frontal" does offer moviegoers more than a few treats. Across the board, Soderbergh's Who's Who ensemble cast of Hollywood's A-list stars and actors is terrific. Among that stellar group, David Hyde Pierce and Catherine Keener stand out as an acrimonious, feuding couple who deliver some of the best dialogue around.

At its worst, "Full Frontal" feels self-indulgent, overflowing with self-referential, "insider" satire. At its best, this grand but flawed experiment never fails to provoke a strong response. Which for most mainstream moviegoers isn't nearly reason enough to plunk down seven-plus bucks. S ***

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