The New Ship of Fools

Hollywood is the new Ship of Fools, and with a boring, amateurish, incomprehensible and stupefyingly pretentious pile of swill called Full Frontal , the prosecution rests its case. This is the most deluded piece of crap since Mulholland Drive , only it seems twice as long and half as interesting. Before it crashed and burned, David Lynch’s dementedly overrated Mulholland Drive at least held a morbid grip on the imagination. Steven Soderbergh’s dementedly overrated Full Frontal doesn’t even offer a grace period; it falls apart in the first five minutes. Everything after that is a week’s vacation in Kabul.

In the dense array of animated zombies that populate this gimmicked-up Soderbergh drivel, a vast number of performers who should’ve known better prove Hitchcock’s theory that actors are nothing more than cows you lead through a fence. While several Hollywood imbeciles prepare for the 40th birthday of a producer named Gus (David Duchovny), scenes unravel from a fictional film called Rendezvous , which has a black star named Calvin (Blair Underwood) and a white star named Francesca (Julia Roberts in a blond wig). As shots from the fake film progress on perfectly clear 35-millimeter film stock with professional lighting and sound, the continuity is interrupted by the digitally recorded “reality” footage of the people behind the scenes while Mr. Soderbergh breaks through the “fourth wall” of cinema. The fake movie looks like a real movie that doesn’t give you headaches; the “reality” stuff is so grainy and dark you feel like you need to shine a flashlight on the screen to see what’s going on. Sometimes the movie just goes out of focus completely and stays that way for minutes on end, the way photographer Bert Stern used to shoot whiskey bottles to look like a blur of pinwheels. (It made a lot of people sick but didn’t sell much Four Roses.) The same kind of pretentious retro assault on the optical nerves makes Full Frontal look like the world immediately following Lasik surgery.

But back to the brain-dead characters. Mopey, monotoned Catherine Keener plays Lee Bright, a 41-year-old “icy bitch” who works as a V.P. of human resources at a large corporation and takes out her sick fantasies on fired employees; on her younger, unmarried sister Linda (Mary McCormack), who works as a hotel masseuse; and on her emasculated husband Carl (David Hyde Pierce), a writer for Los Angeles Magazine and author of the Rendezvous screenplay. In the execrable movie-within-the-movie, Mr. Underwood is also playing a black actor named Nicholas who is being profiled by (and falling in love with) an arrogant magazine interviewer named Catherine (Julia Roberts in a brunette wig). Carl bakes the hashish brownies for Gus’ birthday, gets fired from his magazine job (presumably for publishing too many nude Brad Pitt covers), and comes home, already so depressed he’s ready for a whole bottle of Seconal, to find the dog has eaten the brownies and is now semi-conscious. While he’s on the phone with the vet, he finds a letter his wife Lee has written asking for a divorce. Meanwhile, Lee is having sex with the actor Calvin, and Lee’s sister Linda gets an extra $500 for a 30-second hand job on a client who turns out to be the mysterious Gus. For extra confusion, Mr. Soderbergh keeps cutting to a play called The Sound and the Führer , in which Adolf Hitler returns to Hollywood as a psychotic and much-revered studio executive. Everyone shags off to Gus’ party (except Hitler, who has to teach a Pilates class), where the guest of honor never shows up because he’s upstairs naked with a plastic bag around his head. Director Soderbergh appears from time to time doing what he laughably calls “directing” this garbage with a black box covering his face. Apparently everyone involved is considered such an expert on the subject of self-obsessed Hollywood hypocrites they require no identity. You’re not supposed to ask why Julia Roberts can’t tell the difference between Francesca and Catherine, or why she plays them both the same way. If you don’t already know that Julia Roberts can’t act, then the joke is on you. Everyone else is dreadful, too. David Duchovny gets a massage. Brad Pitt shows up to improvise a few inanities (a homage to Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven ). Terence Stamp is seen entering and leaving a hotel lobby (a homage to Soderbergh’s The Limey ). Mouthing superficial baloney, none of them has any talent for improvisation, and the incoherent jumble they babble is so annoying it makes you think of pain-management clinics. Editor: “I want this magazine to drink from the bottle!” Petulant movie star Julia Roberts, throwing her lunch on the floor of her trailer: “This arugula is so bitter it’s like my algebra teacher on bread!” Black actor: “From Sambo to Sidney to Denzel to me, us brothers ain’t gettin’ or givin’ no love!” Insane actor playing Hitler, whose leading lady walks out when she catches him drinking blood: “People who are offended by drinking blood are obviously not drinking any blood, O.K.?” This is the catastrophic result of turning over the contents of the safe to second-rate directors after they win their first Oscar, and moaning when they shovel back their masturbatory fantasies in your face. The most disgusting impersonation in the film is a swinish pig who calls himself Harvey. Since Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein gave these amateurs the money to waste, then allowed them to make fun of him on screen, the in-joke seems like insulting double jeopardy. Maybe he’s such a sport that he thinks it’s funny. I don’t. I mean, how many ways can you spell F-O-O-L?

Mr. Soderbergh’s aim is to convince amateur filmmakers that they can buy any basic camera at any convenience store and make a movie just like Full Frontal . He’s right: With no talent, experience, intelligence or perception, you can make a movie just like this one, as long as you’ve got pals like Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, David Duchovny, Catherine Keener and David Hyde Pierce to trash themselves in front of your video camcorder, and Miramax to write checks. The result is career suicide, of course, and any guarantee that the audience will pay money to watch it happen is as big a gamble as WorldCom stock. Ask Mr. Soderbergh to explain this gibberish, and he would probably tell you it’s supposed to be bad satire. But who wants to spend good money watching neurotic non-people cruise the Internet for sex, eat food sweetened with fruit juice by Wolfgang Puck, and talk in pointless non sequiturs? If this is what Hollywood people are like, no wonder their movies are so lousy.

A Fresh Surprise On Broadway

Summer replacements in Broadway shows are like the dreaded arrival of Japanese beetles in Connecticut rose gardens. Currently, there are some notable exceptions. Ensconced in the actual decadence of Studio 54, the long-running revival of Cabaret has found the sinister seediness of prewar Berlin it just may need to run forever. At least until Sept. 8, the show has some new magic and energy it didn’t have before in the powerful presence of Polly Bergen, John Stamos and Hal Linden. The score by Kander and Ebb brings back the same dark flavor of Germany after midnight, Sam Mendes’ poisonously sequined canvas of hedonism in the face of social corruption is as delightfully degenerate as ever, and the seats are just as torturous. But Mr. Stamos conceals his cover-boy good looks behind a gangrenous grin as the hilariously campy new M.C. of the Kit Kat Klub and sings the haunting “I Don’t Care Much” (cut from the original show and restored for this production) as a prediction of dire things to come with a force that stings. Mr. Linden is a more handsome and persuasive Herr Schultz, the doomed Jewish grocer, than his predecessors. And Ms. Bergen is the best Fraulein Schneider the stage has seen since the legendary Lotte Lenya. The role was created for Lenya; when she sauntered onstage in her tattered bathrobe, a survivor of the Nazis who still held her carrot-topped head high with indestructible pride, she brought the entire Weimar Republic onstage with her. Ms. Bergen has the same kind of stoicism-resigned to fate, resourceful, ready to do whatever she must to stay alive and the hell with the consequences. She is a new, Brechtian kind of diseuse -all traces of glamour erased, years of experience and talent powerfully retained, singing with operatic grandeur in the ruins of her own life. Enshrouded in a fog of nicotine rapture, they all are worth the ticket price; the extra charges are up to you. If your back can survive two and a half hours in a wooden bar chair at a table the size of a volleyball, or if your pocketbook can afford $350 for a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, you’ll have a fine time. Life is indeed a cabaret, old chum, but at these prices, who are they kidding?

Entering its third year, with a national tour hitting the road in September, The Producers is a juggernaut without brakes. For fans who can’t get enough, new faces all over the stage make a second visit mandatory. I laugh every time I think of Brad Oscar as the stormtrooper author of Springtime for Hitler , sieg-heiling himself to unexpected glory for writing the worst musical in history, but he is equally hilarious in the starring role Nathan Lane exited. Meanwhile, his roly-poly replacement, John Treacy Egan, booted and swastika’d and goose-stepping his way through “Der Guten Tag Hop Clop,” is stopping the show his own way. Tony-winner Gary Beach hasn’t lost his timing as the flamboyantly nelly director Roger De Bris, and Cady Huffman is still milking every laugh from the brainless Swedish sexpot Ulla. Sam Harris, as the lisping, libidinous, limp-wristed Carmen Ghia, has a ball as a one-man Gay Pride parade who hisses like a radiator. But the real surprise is Steven Weber, who has replaced Matthew Broderick with more pizzazz than I ever dreamed possible. His nerdy accountant, Leo Bloom, is at first nerdier than ever, but when he blossoms into a naïvely self-important Broadway felon, he turns into a charming, nimble and captivating butterfly. Mr. Weber sings better than Mr. Broderick, and as a dancer he uses his long limbs as awkward appendages, like a sexy Stan Laurel. Limber and lanky and thoroughly entrancing, he could become another Ray Bolger. The Führer is still causing a furor at the St. James Theatre-I can’t wait till it gets to Berlin.