“In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything.” So begins Schizopolis, a film anticipating its own future as a cult item. It’s the go-for-broke, no-fucks-given final chapter in Steven Soderbergh’s early period, which definitively came to an end two years later in 1998 with the release of the smash hit Out of Sight. Schizopolis is so riotously bizarre, stuffed so full of clever ideas and surreal gags, that it was all but guaranteed to alienate most audiences; indeed, it failed to recoup more than a small fraction of the scant $250,000 production budget (though it did garner a few bemused reviews). But it’s also clear that Soderbergh (having just made The Underneath and Gray’s Anatomy, the former an artistic failure, the latter a commercial one) simply set out to make a true passion project, unconcerned with something as vulgar as box office potential. The most important thing for Soderbergh, then and ever since, is to make exactly the film he wants to make.

Part of why Schizopolis feels so personal is due to the fact that it features Soderbergh’s only substantial acting role. It is also the last original screenplay he’s written (barring any unproduced ones). He plays a pair of doppelgängers: Fletcher Munson, a bland office drone working for a nebulous self-help group known as Eventualism, and Jeffrey Korchek, a dentist with a fondness for Muzak. About halfway through, the film pulls a Lost Highway-like body-switch when Fletcher discovers the existence of his double and then inexplicably becomes him. It is due to this transition that Fletcher discovers that his wife (Betsy Brantley) is having an affair with Dr. Korchek—that is, with himself. It’s a nifty conceit, but Soderbergh doesn’t exploit many of its darker possibilities. The film is far from plot-driven and quietly loops back on itself twice, switching perspectives each time (the final section follows Munson’s wife).

There’s also an exterminator named Elmo Oxygen (played by David Jensen) who runs around seducing lonely housewives until, in the Soderbergh’s most overtly meta-filmic gesture, he eventually quits the film to star in his own show. Soderbergh made similarly self-aware moves in Full Frontal several years later but not with this kind of audaciousness. He’s also rarely been successful when working in this mode—and that includes Schizopolis. There are certainly some memorable ideas: in particular, the conversations between Munson and his wife, consisting of fill-in-the-blank lines such as “Generic greeting!” and “Really well-rehearsed speech about workload and stress,” which are both very funny and effective in conveying a lack of meaningful communication. But then there’s the coded language Elmo and his conquests use, which is less structured and intentionally arbitrary—and, ultimately, a little tiresome. The film overall just feels a little too scattershot, too disjointed to cohere into an effective satire.

Schizopolis is most effective in smaller moments, such as the way Munson strings his boss along with single-word responses while not working on his speech. For Soderbergh fans, the presence of Eddie Jemison (perhaps best-known as the sweaty tech maven of the Ocean’s series) is also a delight. The pièce de résistance, though, is a scene in which Munson makes faces at himself in a bathroom mirror, a brief respite from his buttoned-down, humdrum life. It at first recalls Belmondo’s mirror-mugging in Breathless, but goes on so long that it turns into a strange piece of anti-comedy (as well as letting the director really perform). But Schizopolis is a film for completists only, not an example of Soderbergh’s real genius. It would be churlish to beat up too much on such a cheap, fun-loving little movie. Suffice it to say, it’s more interesting to talk about and think about than to actually sit through.

  • The Laundromat

    Relentless innovator Steven Soderbergh drops the iPhone and returns to the RED for his lat…
  • Holy Hell! Out of Sight Turns 20

    While its sexual energy sizzles, the love story at the heart of Soderbergh's film may burn…
  • Unsane

    Unsane, shot entirely on iPhones, is a new experiment for Soderbergh, which makes it as qu…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Check Also

Revisit: 45 Years

It’s refreshing, for once, to see sex treated with maturity and honesty …