The Girlfriend Experience is director Steven Soderberg’s latest artistic foray wearing his subtle “experimental” helmet, the same one he wore for such films as Bubble and Solaris. It is a time capsule to be sure – what with the characters chatting about the impending Obama-McCain election – but it is also another opportunity to dabble in his artistry and flex his filmmaking muscles that more narrative-driven films like Traffic or the Ocean’s trilogy perhaps do not allow.
Bubble, his last experiment with such flourishes, was notable for its simultaneous release on DVD, in theaters, and On Demand. It was a comfortable, intimate tale that in telling a straightforward tale enabled Soderberg to test and play with all the buttons on his Hi-Def camera, without it feeling as though he was grandstanding.
Coming off the four-hour biographic deluge known as Che, Soderberg pares things down here to a minimum, as Girlfriend clocks in at barely more than an hour. The story is one of Chelsea, a hooker (played by real-life porn star Sasha Grey – don’t get too excited, boys, despite its subject matter, the film is quite chaste) who is meandering through her life, struggling with her personal trainer boyfriend and generally moping and pouting.
Honestly, her story is truly a means to an end. It's slight (which is rather surprising coming from Soderberg collaborators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, who also penned the Ocean's films) and Grey demonstrates that she may be a considerable force in porn, but fully clothed, she does not appear all that, um, stimulating. It is curious as to why she made Soderberg's short list of actresses to cast, with her flat affect and bored stares. But even as the star, she's no more important to the film as the furnishings in her art deco apartment. It is a shame that the director failed to play to the actress's strengths, as he has created what still remains one of the cinema's hottest couplings, that of George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight.
The real choice casting coup is former Premiere film critic Glenn Kenny, playing a swarthy editor of an online “call girl review” site who persuades Chelsea to let him sample her wares in exchange for a glowing review. You can be sure casting a film critic in that role was certainly no accident.
There are not too many other subtle casting tricks up its sleeve; instead The Girlfriend Experience is a blank canvas on which Soderberg can indulge some of his film school urgings, which he does fluidly without ever appearing indulgent or superfluous. This is Soderberg exploring his inner Godard. And for those who appreciate the technical aspects of film, he does not disappoint: using diagetic street drums to pound out the soundtrack in spots (a stark contrast to his infectious jazzy score of the Ocean's heist films), subtle static camera angles to respect the rule of thirds, and bathing the affair in warm amber hues that accentuate each scene and its player.
The Girlfriend Experience will certainly fade into Soderberg's resume perhaps just as quickly as its of-the-moment pre-election conversations, but it's ultimately like giving Picasso a pencil and watching just what he can create with limited means and his own imagination.