Soderbergh heads back to the art house

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Independent directors lie awake at night wondering how they can become Hollywood hitmakers.

It also works the other way around. Steven Soderbergh is a famous filmmaker with an Oscar for "Traffic" and box-office winners like "Ocean's Eleven" and "Erin Brockovich" in his recent past. But just when you think he's found his audience-pleasing niche, he makes a peculiar little picture like "Full Frontal," which doesn't fit into any niche at all. Does he lie awake nights figuring out ways to sabotage his own success?

Not really. Soderbergh began his career with the ornery "sex, lies and videotape," and he still belongs to the small group of indie directors who love cinema in all its forms. For him, making hits and winning Oscars are only parts of the game. He wants to explore new horizons, too – experimenting, taking chances, pushing the envelope from time to time.

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"Full Frontal" is far from a great film, but it certainly stretches the envelope. The action takes place during 24 hours. The story is a loosely strung series of scenes – mostly about people making a movie and rehearsing a play – that often drift in different directions. The movie cares more about mercurial moods and emotions than logic-driven causes and effects.

It was made in unconventional ways, too. Soderbergh shot it in a quick 18-day period, using both video and film. Although it's based on a screenplay by Coleman Hough, the actors were encouraged to improvise while the cameras rolled, and Soderbergh conducted on-set interviews with them to stimulate deeper thinking about their characters. This isn't what stars like Julia Roberts and David Duchovny are accustomed to, but it's all part of Soderbergh's wake-'em-shake-'em strategy.

At a time when most indie filmmakers will gladly scuttle their distinctive voices for a crack at mainstream success, I find all this wonderfully refreshing. Instead of cranking out "Traffic II" or "Ocean's Twelve," which he could easily have done, Soderbergh has taken a genuine risk.

That said, I wish I could be more enthusiastic about the results. "Full Frontal" is often likable, but just as often it's meandering, low on energy, and too eager to be quirky at moments when a little old-fashioned storytelling would come in handy. It's also less cinematically bold than some other recent pictures about moviemaking, like "ivans xtc." and "Time Code," as well as "Schizopolis," the 1996 comedy that last brought Soderbergh into avant-garde territory.

It doesn't even follow through on its some of its most tantalizing ideas. Playing one of the film's dual roles – a black actor and the character he portrays in the on-screen movie production – Blair Underwood delivers an articulate protest against Hollywood's reluctance to show interracial kissing. So why does Soderbergh resolve the black-white romance in "Full Frontal" with a smoochless clinch that falls into the same trap?

I hope reservations like mine won't discourage Soderbergh from trying more offbeat experiments when he feels the urge. "Full Frontal" offers a much-needed change of pace in a movie season full of silliness and vulgarity.

And it's nothing if not surprising. How many directors could persuade a star like Duchovny to play a character who's as pathetic as he is trashy – and has only about five minutes of screen time, to boot?

All in all, though, "Full Frontal" doesn't live up to its title. It's more a provocative gesture than a full frontal assault on the Hollywood formulas it criticizes.

• Rated R; contains sex and foul language.

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