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Schizopolis

Not rated, 96 min. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Steven Soderbergh, Betsy Brantley, David Jensen, Eddie Jemison, Scott Allen, Mike Malone, Katherine Lanasa.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 1, 1997

Who knew that deep inside the soul of Steven Soderbergh beat the heart of a great comic actor? In Schizopolis, we find Soderbergh working both sides of the camera as actor, writer, and director in the creation of this most personal of all his projects. Soderbergh has stated that the making of Schizopolis was a conscious act of catharsis, shot in the wake of his curiously passionless film noir update of The Underneath (which was filmed in Austin), is clearly something he made to please himself, and this movie shows no signs whatsoever of any tailoring to accommodate the needs or expectations of an audience. Yet that's not to say that Schizopolis fails to connect with viewers… it's just that audiences are going to have a hard time tidily summarizing what it is they just experienced (and I suspect the same holds true for Soderbergh himself). It's a fractured comic narrative with several different (though not necessarily separate) storylines. The first involves one of the characters played by Soderbergh, Fletcher Munson, an employee at some sort of vague but pervasive Scientology-like organization called Eventualism, led by elliptical self-help guru T. Azimuth Schwitters (Malone). Fletcher wrestles throughout the movie with a speech he's been assigned to write for Schwitters. At home, he and his wife (Brantley) exchange robotic verbal cues (“Generic greeting,” he says as he comes in the door. “Generic greeting returned,” she replies). Odd phone calls interrupt Fletcher at work and at home, and the Eventualists are all consumed with conspiratorial worries about a mole loose in the organization. And somewhere in another part of town, or another part of Fletcher's brain, an orange jump-suited and goggled exterminator (Jensen) is killing bugs and making love to the ladies (primarily with nonsensical wordplay). Then, while trying to unlock a car that's identical to his own, Fletcher notices a man who's physically identical to himself. The man is bachelor dentist Dr. Jeffrey Korchek (also played by Soderbergh) and Fletcher follows him home and assumes his identity. The wealthy Dr. Korchek is having an affair with Mrs. Fletcher Munson, who is later seen to be having a different affair with a foreign lover (also played by Soderbergh). Confused? Well, the movie does and doesn't make sense. Most often, the movie reveals itself in coy flashes of understanding. It's silly, funny, astute, and elliptical and it's a blast to see Soderbergh having so much fun with cinema again. He appears before a lectern at the beginning and end of this film without credits, assuring us that “no expense was incurred” in the making of this movie and that failure to understand it is the viewer's own fault. His deadpan comic timing is delightful and as an actor he's willing to try anything and demonstrates it as he makes a series of funny faces in the mirror and masturbates in a bathroom stall. I'm not sure I would want to try and convince anyone that Schizopolis represents Cinema Ground Zero (this is the kind of idiosyncratic filmmaking that's sure to drive many viewers around the bend), but it sure is wonderful to know that Soderbergh hasn't given up the search.
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