A Swim in Lake Me

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After a few epic-size hollywood films (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean's Eleven), director Steven Soderbergh has gone small. Full Frontal, his terrific new movie, is intimate and innovative. It boasts rules of Dogma-like rigor: the budget was $2 million; the shoot took just three weeks; most of it was photographed (by the director) on video; the stars were responsible for their own makeup; no limos or trailers were allowed. He also constructed a Chinese box of a film-within-a-film-within-a-film. The result is his liveliest experiment since the strenuously weird Schizopolis six years ago — except that this one works.

A tale of articulate people with the gift of hurting the ones they care about, Full Frontal reminds viewers that there's room for stories about grownups — their wayward loves; their career blips; their relation to the media maw; their takes on race, pets, outsize vibrators and Brad Pitt — told with inventive wit in a dozen distinctive voices.

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Jan. 17, 2004

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The plot is complexity itself. It's Friday in L.A., and tart-tongued management type Lee (Catherine Keener) is ready to walk out on mousy Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a magazine writer who moonlights with plays and film scripts. His Hitler play opens tonight. His movie is being shot right now with movie star Francesca (Julia Roberts) and rising TV actor Calvin (Blair Underwood). The film's producer, Gus (David Duchovny), turns 40 today and is expected at a birthday party a few hours after he gets a massage from Lee's sister Linda (Mary McCormack). Everyone collides, sexually or emotionally, with everyone else. Collides and contuses. You can see the welts, or rather hear them, in the dialogue by poet-playwright Coleman Hough (a real find); it laces endearments with insults. It cuts as it caresses.

There's a taut grandeur to Full Frontal, in part because Julia the box-office queen is encased in an ensemble cast of attractive, accomplished actors. And mainly because Hough recombines devious devices of old melodrama and comedy: the love (or hate) letter left to be discovered, two sisters involved in shady dalliances in separate rooms at the same hotel. Hough wraps this all in brittle wit; imagine the coolest cocktail conversation, then put it in a movie.

Here you will learn: how your porn-star name is chosen (your first pet's name plus the name of the first street you lived on), how a boss can intimidate an employee (by telling him to stand on one leg on a chair while listing African countries) and whether a black man will ever be able to kiss a white woman onscreen (we won't say). All this local intelligence supports the view that people make a mess of their lives, then try to clean up by sweeping that mess under a rug of propriety, hostility or banter.

As Carl's Hitler (the very funny Nicky Katt) explains to Eva Braun, "I'm too committed to my work to maintain a relationship ... I'm taking a swim in Lake Me." This beguiling film is about whether its attractive egocentrics will ever stick their toe in Lake Anybody Else. For an invigorating summer dip in the waters of Lake Smart, dive into Full Frontal.