Many directors toss off at least one vanity project during their careers, illustrious or otherwise. Films that indulge the director's creative whims for their own sake. We allowed Woody Allen's SHADOWS AND FOG, Scorsese's AFTER HOURS, and Coppola's YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH. All 3 directors collaborated on the mostly silly NEW YORK STORIES. What to say of a director who sports several of these types of films in his ouvre? So goes the resume of Steven Soderbergh. You know him for ERIN BROCKOVICH, the OCEAN'S remakes, TRAFFIC, and perhaps also for OUT OF SIGHT and THE LIMEY. There are also the "stunts" (see previous post) like FULL FRONTAL, BUBBLE, and THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE.
Soderbergh made his feature debut with a big splash in the indie world with 1989's SEX, LIES, & VIDEOTAPE. It was a compact, insightful drama, and a huge financial and critical success. The inevitable sophomore slump often looms large as an artist tries to follow up such adulation. Perhaps quite cunningly (ala the Coen Bros.) Soderbergh next chose to do KAFKA, a black and white surrealist nightmare that most certainly qualifies as a vanity project. It did as poorly as its predecessor had done swimmingly. He then made the solid KING OF THE HILL, followed by the pretty awful UNDERNEATH, a film that may well turn you off to flashback scenes for good.
By 1995, the director had a varied collection of cinema behind him, leaving him a curiosity for most viewers. He was certainly a talented and creative fellow, but maybe unfocused. Was a mental garage sale what was needed? A clearing out of the cranium? Sort of like what Kurt Vonnegut did with his Breakfast of Champions? Get all the crap out and onto the screen, to cleanse the canvas? SCHIZOPOLIS seems that way. It is not easily described, but surprisingly was not quite as bizarre as I was expecting. Still, proceed with some degree of caution, invisible audience. It's still an odd bird, and has no traditional opening titles or end credits, as if responsibility/blame can not be laid upon anyone for this movie.
We meet Fletcher Munson, an Everyman cubicle drone (played by the director himself, who really should act more often; he's pretty good!) whose responsibility is to write speeches for T. Azimuth Schwitters, a self-help guru/evangelist for an ersatz religion known as Eventualism. Scientology and its ilk get a good methaphorical skewering in SCHIZOPOLIS, by the way.
Like most dissatisfied employees, Munson spends more time commiserating with colleagues and making excuses to his excitable boss than working. There's also some intrigue about a possible spy/mole within the ranks. The movie isn't really too concerned with that.
Life at home is hardly better. If there are themes in SCHIZOPOLIS, certainly lack of meaningful, or any, communication is prominent. Munson arrives home and engages in an exchange not of tired formalities, but commentary on the formalities themselves.
Fletcher: Generic greeting.
Wife: Generic greeting returned.
Fletcher: Imminent sustenance.
Wife: Overly dramatic statement regarding upcoming meal.
Fletcher: Oooh, false reaction indicating hunger and excitement.
There are other such scenes, which I loved. I really appreciate satiric digs at the banality of culture like this. Getting all meta on it. You're probably aware of the rally held in Washington D.C. by comedic pundits Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert recently. Those who attended held up signs that read and chanted things like "THREE WORD SLOGAN!" It really brings to light how silly we behave, politically or otherwise. SCHIZOPOLIS, while seeming not to have any particular purpose, understands this.
Other times, characters will speak in untranslated Japanese and French. Is that how Munson's wife (Betsy Brantley, Soderbergh's real life ex-wife) sees her husband and her lover (also played by Soderbergh)? I ask this in terms of not only culture, but basic understanding (the joke is that she understands every word). By the way, her husband and her lover are the same actor/character adopting different personas, perhaps unbeknownst to her. We have a Lynchian scene where Munson unsuccessfully tries his key in his car door, walks away, then his doppelganger, a jogsuit clad dentist named Dr. Jeffrey Korchak, gets in the car and drives away. For awhile, Munson becomes Korchak. "I'm having an affair with my own wife," he states.
How about that insect exterminator who makes some rather amorous housecalls around suburbia, speaking in his own language that indeed is understood by his clients? Why is a film crew following him? Who is that couple also tracking his every move? These scenes play a bit foretellingly, like a bad reality TV program.
There are periodic, silly newscasts that have nothing to do with the rest of the film. Some of them are amusing. Also, there's a naked man running through fields, chased by two men in white. These elements make SCHIZOPOLIS play like a series of skits, breaks in the so-called action of the main "plot". I was reminded of those 70s gag comedies like KENTUCKY FRIED MOVIE and THE GROOVE TUBE. What the director was really going for apparently was the anarchy of Richard Lester comedies of the 1960s, films like HELP! Soderbergh even pays homage to the British director by naming a character Lester Richards. There is also a nod or two to Cecil B. DeMille in this movie.
We know SCHIZOPOLIS is a one-off joke from the first scene, as Soderbergh approaches a podium and breaks the fourth wall, telling us that it's our own fault if we don't understand the movie. He also hopes we spent full price to watch this, not "some bargain matinee..." I guess we can take it all as Soderbergh's mental purging. Putting all of this unscripted buffoonery in a cinematic sidewalk sale that we can browse (or dismiss). It is much more entertaining and less painful than I was expecting, but how much you enjoy it is clearly a matter of personal taste and tolerance.
With all of the underlying semi-serious takes on stereotypes and perspectives and psychology and cultishness, are we to take any of it seriously? Does Soderbergh want us to? Or is it as I said, just a rummage sale before he moved on to more disciplined efforts? He's not telling. His commentary on the Criterion disc is a mostly entertaining interview with himself. Tongue is firmly in cheek throughout, and we get no answers. It's the sort of commentary this movie deserves.