"The Girlfriend Experience": Flat acting fails portrait of a call girl

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, May 21, 2009 2:41pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

When he’s not making the “Ocean’s Eleven” pictures for Hollywood or tackling large-scale art-house projects such as “Che,” Steven Soderbergh dabbles in little experimental movies.

This probably adds to his skills as an artist overall, and sometimes the results (the oddball small-town “Bubble,” for instance) are pretty cool.

The newest little one is “The Girlfriend Experience,” a nonlinear, partly improvised look at the life of a specialized call girl.

The professional in question, Chelsea, provides her clients with something more than a functional roll in the sack. A certain amount of talking, intimacy and regular contact means her clients will receive — you guessed it — the girlfriend experience.

Soderbergh has cast a real-life porno star, Sasha Grey, as Chelsea. This must’ve seemed like an interesting idea, and if the audience is aware of Grey’s day job, it certainly collapses a certain traditional boundary between actor and role.

But Grey herself is an inert presence, and whatever insights she might have into the business of deploying one’s body as a commercial interest does not translate to the screen. In other words, there’s a lot to be said for what real actors bring to a film.

As the movie unfolds, it becomes clear that we are watching different scenes from Chelsea’s life, cut up so they are sometimes out of chronological order. She shares an unorthodox arrangement with Chris (Chris Santos), a personal trainer: They are in a committed relationship and live together, but it’s all right for her to ply her trade during the week.

We see Chelsea interact with a couple of clients (there’s nothing hardcore in the movie, and Soderbergh doesn’t even expose much of Grey’s anatomy), submit to an interview and meet a new man for whom she might be willing to waive her usual fee.

Shot and edited quickly, the movie is recent enough to have incorporated the financial plummet of fall ‘08. As a working girl, Chelsea is incessantly pondering the right course for her financial future.

Soderbergh also includes a scene in which a sexologist of some kind (played by Glenn Kenny, who used to review movies for Premiere magazine) offers to give Chelsea good publicity in exchange for a free preview of her talents. From this sequence and its punch line, I take it Soderbergh has more respect for prostitutes than he does for critics.

“The Girlfriend Experience” is the kind of experimental film that must have been more interesting to make than it is to watch. Soderbergh’s ideas are alive and intriguing, but ideas alone don’t make a film come alive.

“The Girlfriend Experience”

A high-priced call girl (played by porn star Sasha Grey in her first legit role) sorts through her commercial interests in Steven Soderbergh’s nonlinear account. This is the kind of experimental movie that must have been more interesting to make than it is to watch, and Grey is an inert presence.

Rated: R for nudity, language, subject matter

Showing: Seven Gables

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