Another Movie Guy?: "The Girlfriend Experience," etc.

Welcome to “Another Movie Guy?”! I review recent new releases, and then mention similar movies worth checking out. If all goes according to plan, you’ll have some new additions to your Netflix queue. Or someone with whom you can angrily disagree.

Chelsea speaks with the flat tones of a reassuring, sophisticated woman. She’s beautiful and well-dressed – men value her not as a companion but as a symbol. Chris speaks with the unwavering optimism of consummate salesman. As a personal trainer whose own physique is his strongest credential, he easily signs his clients on for extra sessions. They are a successful couple. Both rely on looks for their luxurious lifestyle, yet the sacrifices she must make come with a heavier toll. Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience regards these characters with cool fascination. The result is not emotionally engaging, yet the movie acutely observes the tension between what we want and what we need.

It is October 2008, and the financial bailout is on everyone’s mind. Chelsea (Sasha Grey) and Chris (Chris Santos) are unhappy with their careers, and put out feelers for better things. Chris talks to his boss, and patiently argues he deserves a cut of the gym’s profit. Chelsea, a high class call-girl, wants to expand her portfolio and attract wealthier clients. She talks to a reporter about the particulars of her job, and is reluctant to discuss her feelings. She describes her clients in a diary, and uses the clinical descriptions that Patrick Bateman employs in American Psycho. A sleazy web developer thinks she might have a shot at the big time: escorting billionaires in Dubai. She is presentable arm candy, a good listener who functions as facsimile girlfriend. Clients uniformly regard her as a reprieve from their everyday lives. Sex is ancillary, and men pay her to listen. Perhaps Chelsea’s career blocks any serious emotional connection. One day she sees relationship potential with a client, and is strikingly cavalier when discussing him with her boyfriend. Chris’ attraction to Chelsea is real, and is hurt when she nonchalantly breaks the rules.

Soderbergh made his debut with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, so he’s no stranger to this kind of story. Here he successfully finds a style to match his subject. The interiors – elegantly decorated apartments and posh restaurants – have a superficial sheen that mirror the language of the characters. Everyone speaks reservedly, with platitudes that mask any substantial thought or feeling. It is fascinating to watch Chelsea interact with her clients. They all want the same thing, and uniformly feel trapped by their day-to-day lives. Soderbergh excels at drawing parallels. At work Chris has the same superficially pleasant interactions as Chelsea; there are hints that he functions as her boyfriend experience. As Chelsea, Sasha Grey gives a surprisingly nuanced performance. Grey is 21-year-old porn star with an impressive filmography. At first I didn’t think the star of such films as I Wanna Bang Your Sister and Asstravaganza 3 could subtly portray a woman whose career hinders any chance of a genuine connection. In retrospect, a porn star is the perfect choice. Grey consistently hides her thoughts, and is almost heartbreaking in the few moments when her emotions bubble to the surface.

The Girlfriend Experience studies behavior more than character. Soderbergh shoots from a distance and obscures faces, thereby giving the impression of an eavesdropper. And like many of his other movies, the screenplay has a disjointed chronology, so plot developments lack the context that might elicit emotional impact. Such choices have a fascinating result. Without dramatic tension, it is easier to hear the similar rhythms of conversation, and how hollow the characters are (it is worth noting the screenwriters are also responsible for the mediocre Ocean’s 13). With a nada budget and no big actors, Soderbergh crafted a movie rich with insight. If anything, it’ll remind you why overreliance on movies like Grand Theft Anal 11 will leave you feeling empty.

Here are other observant movies about the world’s oldest profession:

The Naked Kiss. I saw this movie two weeks ago, and even though it’s not entirely successful, it made quite an impression. Constance Towers plays Kelly, a hooker who is looking for a second chance. She moves from the big city to Grantville, and local cop Griff is her last trick. Soon she finds work at a children’s hospital, and gets engaged. Other young woman want work at Candy’s Place, the local brothel. Kelly does her best to save the townsfolk. Ultimately the dark side of everyone, including her fiance, disappoint her. I’m not sure whether director Samuel Fuller meant The Naked Kiss to function as a comedy, yet some scenes are so over the top that I could not help laugh. At one point Kelly has a physical altercation with Candy, and it culminates with the literal line, “Nobody shoves dirty money in my mouth.” Fuller defines his characters with broad strokes, and peppers each scene with melodrama, sleaze, violence, and depravity. The camerawork is bold and calls attention to itself – it’s as if Fuller deliberately calls attention to the ludicrous plot development. The actors play the material straight, which makes the campy tone all the more surreal. You can’t really get wrapped up in a story like this, but if you approach the movie with the right mind set, I promise you won’t be bored.

The Man From Elysian Fields. When a rock star appears in a dramatic role, I’m always a little skeptical. It was pleasant surprise to discover that Mick Jagger, who plays Luther the classy pimp, actually has the chops to keep up with Oscar winners. Andy Garcia is Byron, a writer whose latest is gathering dust in the bargain bin. Desperate for money, Byron meets Luther at a bar, and the two discuss business. Luther runs Elysian Fields, an escort service that “tend[s] to the wounds of lonely women in need of emotional as well as spiritual solace.” Byron’s first assignment is Andrea (Olivia Williams), who has an ailing elderly husband Tobias (James Coburn). Of course Tobias knows about Byron, and the idea is for Andrea to have some young companionship – Byron finds himself helping Tobias’ novel. Soon Byron’s wife becomes suspicious of his new job, and soon everyone’s life spirals out of control. Such a comedy of manners is rarely made, particularly in a modern setting, and it’s a shame. The movie is wryly funny, with exquisite performances and memorable dialog. Jagger excels at portraying a man so sophisticated that people do not believe he is capable of emotion. Jennifer (Anjelica Huston), amazing as always, plays Luther’s sole remaining client, and the two have a memorably delicate scene in which they discuss their odd relationship. Too many comedies, particularly ones with Kate Hudson, are on autopilot. Here’s one that’s sophisticated and wise – it’ll leave you wondering why they don’t make more like this.

The Walker. Paul Schrader continues his examination of the male psyche with this memorable thriller. Woody Harrelson plays Carter Page III, an escort whose clients are the elderly women of Washington society. He plays cards and gossips, always look presentable, and is welcome at any diplomatic event. Carter is gay but not in the closet, and provides companionship for his clients. Soon one of his clients (Kristin Scott Thomas) finds her lover dead. Carter, always the dependable one, does what he can to protect her, and finds himself embroiled in scandal. Clients begin to disappear, and Carter takes it upon himself to investigate the murder. Harrelson is the real star here – he normally plays tough characters, and his performance is sly and cool. He is witty but not too witty, values his place, and rightly understands how best to function as a companion. Lauren Bacall and Lily Tomlin play two of Carter’s regular clients, and are pitch-perfect. Schrader is never content to make a simple genre movie, and The Walker is no exception. The moral lines drawn are clear but deep, and the subtle plot developments require careful attention. Sure, everything gets sorted out, but what matters is how Carter learns about himself. And unlike most movies set in Washington, this one gets its geography right.

That’s it for this week’s “Another Movie Guy?”! Tune in next week when I’m a depressed Belgian woman.