The Girlfriend Experience

Dir: Steven Soderbergh

Rating: 2.0

Magnolia Pictures

80 Minutes

Not a bad idea for a film — five days in the life of a highly paid call girl. What a clever idea to explore being on the receiving end (so to speak) of a $2,000 per hour position (so to speak) pretending to be a girlfriend to high rollers. And on top of that, using nonprofessional actors, in particular, a porn star for the main role. Interesting concepts, indeed, that should have produced at least a good film.

Amid the 2008 presidential elections and economic fallout, director Steven Soderbergh tells the tale of Christine Brown aka Chelsea (porn starlet Sasha Grey), a beautiful, young prostitute who only deals with rich men and travels around New York city where, in addition to meeting clients, regularly meets with a journalist (real life Marc Jacobson, New York Magazine), and business consultants via car services. Given the shots of numerous New York restaurant window names, I wonder whether some of these locations were paid product placements.

Chelsea’s clients are often paying for the privilege of her monotone, totally uninteresting conversation while other clients are a bit kinky, although we are never really exposed to full throttle sexual encounters, save one — sort of. The flat affect of Chelsea’s demeanor and robotic voice make it difficult to understand how anyone could warm up to her, especially at her fee. But this is not a problem for her live-in boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos) who works as a trainer in a gym and is as highly ambitious about his industry as she is in hers.

Chelsea and Chris quarrel over her decision to go away for a weekend with a new client in spite of their agreement that away-trips are not acceptable. Despite this rule, she leaves anyway because she believes this married client could be the man of her dreams, so Chris joins a gaggle of men on a private plane bound for Las Vegas.

This high class prostitution gig is an up and down life; Chelsea’s highs involve a lot of great food, fabulous apartment and expensive clothes. But the negatives are reflected in the jealousy Chelsea feels losing a handsome client to a new-comer, the man-of-her-dreams client who never shows for their weekend together and the bad online message board review she receives from a creepy blogger guy (real life film critic Glen Kenny) who dupes her into a tryout before he rated her.

Overall, I felt duped. I wonder if Soderbergh immediately knew that the smallish $1.7 million, 16-day effort was a bust, so he cleverly marketed the film in ways that would tease audiences into paying to see it. For example, his tag line “See it with someone you ****” would lead you to believe that this is a steamy depiction of a call girl’s life replete with a voyeur’s dream of seedy sex. Hardly. Unless you get off on seeing a large man wearing a diaper seated next to the scantily clad babe, or watching as a man gets off while the two barely embrace standing up — “no tongues” please. Maybe this IS a girlfriend’s experience but none that I know of, and if this mostly non-sex experience is typical for most call girls, I’d be very surprised. What is not surprising is that someone like Chelsea runs her day the same as anyone who manages a competitive enterprise, and that her non-client meetings are necessary for the growth and expansion of her business.

The banging of drums in a nearby park accompany a couple of tumultuous scenes and the final shot pans to a hippie-looking duo who sings a folky “Everyone’s a critic.” Could this have been the last slam at critics? Soderbergh has directed some decent films — Erin Brokovich, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, but recent efforts like Che and Bubble petered out at the box office and in reviews. The Girlfriend Experience struggles to be good and artsy. It was apparently shot in chronological sequence, but Soderbergh chopped it up in the editing room to create a visual maze that often lacked clarity. The non-actors’ improvised dialogue too often about the state of the union was anything but smooth or realistic, but rather, contrived and awkward. Trying too hard to produce something unique, I fear Soderbergh traded an interesting story with depth and potentially thought-provoking characters for something less poignant.

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