Steven Soderbergh is one of those directors that just doesn't seem to care how marketable his films are. Here's a man who put himself on the map in the early 2000's with such popular films as Erin Brockovich, Traffic and Ocean's Eleven, but who then followed those up with Solaris, Eros, The Good German and Che. His movies fluctuate between pitch perfect mainstream films and niche art, which is quite rare this day and age; even the most independent of directors, once they hit the big time, seem to sell out. But that's not Soderbergh.
In his first of two 2009 films (the other being The Informant, which I saw last night), he hires gorgeous porn star Sasha Grey to play Chelsea, a high-end Manhattan call girl who's attempting to balance her boyfriend, clients and career. Seeking “reviews” to take her prominence to the next level, she finds herself at odds with her boyfriend, a rare man who's willing to look the other way - most of the time - while she goes out and pleasures other men. When she meets a client who could be something more, however, she puts everything in jeopardy.
The Girlfriend Experience follows Chelsea as she navigates these dilemmas, presenting them as fragmented snapshots out of chronological order. Surprisingly, the movie's narrative is strong and easy to follow and is not nearly as confusing as expected. The movie, shot on a budget of less than $2 million, is simple, and yet Soderbergh makes it look like it could have cost ten times as much. The direction is superb.
Grey, of course, is an unlikely choice to headline a drama by an Oscar-winning director. The 21-year old actress has 180 movies to her credit, but almost all of them are pornos. That's a lot of porn to do in just three years. Despite the odd choice, Grey turns out to be a good choice for Soderbergh; she's gorgeous and has a surprisingly classy look. Furthermore, while she isn't asked to have a lot of emotional range in the picture, she portrays a very likable and yet emotionally tragic figure with ease.
Thanks to Grey's performance, Soderbergh's direction and a pretty good screenplay, The Girlfriend Experience is an easy-to-watch drama that examines a career line that is rarely represented in such a humanistic way. The movie isn't spellbinding or overpowering, but it works as an effective character study.
The Girlfriend Experience, for obvious reasons, is not for everyone, but if you've liked Soderbergh's other indie films, this is another quality entry on his résumé.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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