- The Washington Times - Friday, May 22, 2009

Steven Soderbergh is well-known for alternating between commercial studio fare like the “Ocean’s” series and the indie world, with movies with limited box-office appeal that don’t cost much to make, such as “Bubble” and this weekend’s “The Girlfriend Experience.”

Filmed in the weeks leading up to the 2008 presidential election, “Girlfriend” has a sense of immediacy and something to say about the current political and economic climate. This is harder than it might sound: Consider the recent raft of antiwar flicks that hit theaters right around the time Iraq was pacified and the public lost interest. What was relevant when principal photography began isn’t necessarily what’s going to be relevant when prints roll through the projectors.

“The Girlfriend Experience” is primarily about the fluid nature of relationships, but it’s set against the backdrop of Manhattan just before the economic fall. It’s amusing, when it isn’t infuriating, to hear men in suits dining at five-star restaurants complaining about Wall Street’s doldrums and how they’re hurting — just before they order a 25-year-old bottle of Macallan Scotch (approximate retail value: $599) or plunk down $2,000 for an evening’s worth of services from Chelsea (Sasha Grey).

We follow Chelsea and her live-in boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos) as they navigate the world of business and their own relationship, no easy thing because she’s a high-class prostitute. Through them, we see a view of life that emphasizes the impermanence of personal and professional relationships: Chelsea’s clients pay her for companionship as much as sex, while one of Chris’ male clients (Chris is a personal trainer and aspiring athletic-wear salesman) tries to persuade Chris to join him and his wealthy buddies on an expenses-paid trip to Vegas.

The narrative is nonlinear and just the slightest bit confusing at first, but easy enough to get a handle on as the movie goes along and all the bit players are introduced. The result is to keep the audience just a little off-balance and curious about the cause and effect of the various intertwined scenes.

Populated almost entirely by non-actors (the exception being Miss Grey, an actress of the adult variety making her mainstream debut), “The Girlfriend Experience” only occasionally suffers from the amateurism. More frequently, the rawness of the performers combines with the natural lighting and a vaguely guerrilla mise-en-scene work to Mr. Soderbergh’s advantage.

The breakout performance is undeniably that of Glenn Kenny. He plays the Erotic Connoisseur, a Web-site operator who “samples” the wares of call girls and then reviews them on his site. Mr. Kenny’s character oozes sleaze; formerly of Premiere magazine and currently the operator of the movie blog Some Came Running, Mr. Kenny embodies Mr. Soderbergh’s apparent distaste for the critical community.

Or perhaps that’s just self-loathing shining through; both Mr. Kenny and Mr. Soderbergh deny that the Erotic Connoisseur is intended to stand in for movie critics (and, by extension, that Chelsea is intended to stand in for Mr. Soderbergh) and suggest that any such interpretation is an act of narcissism on behalf of the critical corps.

Either way, “The Girlfriend Experience” is a fascinating character study that sheds new light on the tumultuous times in which we live.

Can you really ask for anything more?

★★★

TITLE: “The Girlfriend Experience”

RATING: R (Sexual content, nudity and language)

CREDITS: Directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien

RUNNING TIME: 78 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.girlfriendexperiencefilm.com/

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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