Steven Soderbergh began his career 20 years ago with an interest in sex and intimacy when he made the still-very-good sex, lies and videotape, which we remember as much for its insight as for the unusual way Soderbergh chose to write its name: The movie's depressed and impotent protagonist couldn't rise to anything, not even capital letters.
In his new film, The Girlfriend Experience, Soderbergh returns to the topic to tell the story of Chelsea, a prostitute who doesn't merely charge an extra $50 to swallow. As played by the adult-film star Sasha Grey, making her legit debut, Chelsea actually "dates" her clients: dinner, a movie, conversation, canoodling, maybe sex, maybe just mutual masturbation -- whatever.
She's not exactly a candidate for the whores of Mensa, but then these guys want someone to listen to them more than they want a date with deep thoughts. Her clients are young and older, black and white, good-looking and not so much. She even has a steady boyfriend (Chris Santos), a hunky personal trainer for rich guys, who supports her chosen profession. He's a nascent entrepreneur himself, so he understands her business ethic.
When The Girlfriend Experience isn't too dark to see what's happening, Soderbergh lights it in industrial blue and the orange glow of light bulbs. He chops his storytelling up, cutting backward and forward in time, somewhat needlessly but not too intrusively. It's the sort of arty film you make when you don't need the money because you're wealthy from directing Danny Ocean movies.
The dialogue feels improvised, so I'm guessing that Soderbergh used the script, by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, as a template, then told his actors to loosen it up. For the professionals in the cast, that's fine. But Grey is a terrible actress, and I know you think I'm saying that because she's a porn star, but really, she's awful -- flat, nasal, mumbly. When someone tells Chelsea to read the comments on her competitors' Web site, she says, "I don't really like checking out reviews." Huh? Not the brightest bulb in the film, that's for sure, so in a way, the casting works.
The Girlfriend Experience takes place in the weeks before Obama's election, and the characters occasionally talk politics. Chelsea has one client, an Orthodox Jew and fast comer, who supports McCain. (I guess we know who Soderbergh voted for.) The conflict comes when Chelsea wants to go away with a client for two days, and Chris objects. So much for hip modern romance.
Soderbergh seems to be saying that intimacy has become a commodity, and that relationships are all a crock. That's a cliché in stories about call girls. Why not freshen it up and explore an established marriage where everything is negotiated? "If they wanted you to be yourself," Chelsea says, in a "duh" moment, lamenting the personae she has to adopt to do her job, "they wouldn't be paying you." True enough. But if she wanted to be herself, she wouldn't have a pay scale.
Starts Fri., June 12. Manor