Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenplay: Steven Soderbergh
Stars: Steven Soderbergh (Fletcher Munson / Dr. Jeffrey Korchek), Betsy Brantley (Mrs. Munson / Attractive Woman #2), David Jensen (Elmo Oxygen), Mike Malone (T. Azimuth Schwitters), Eddie Jemison (Nameless Numberhead Man), Scott Allen (Right Hand Man), Katherine La Nasa (Diane), Silas Cooper (The Mysterious Couple), Liann Pattison (The Mysterious Couple), C.C. Courtney (Man Being Interviewed), Linda Nitsch (Schwitters Fanatic)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1997
Country: U.S.

Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis is as fragmented and confounding as its title implies. It was made as a low-budget personal bomb lobbed simultaneously into the worlds of independent art film (where Soderbergh started) and mainstream commercial filmmaking (where he was headed). Unlike his other experimental film, the tiresome Full Frontal (2002), Schizopolis works best when not taken seriously. It is, in fact, a comedy in which Soderbergh is having the time of his life playing with the medium and its stilted conventions, and to watch it in any other frame of mind is to overindulge in its gloriously self-conscious arty pretensions.

Schizopolis is like a silly student thesis film writ large as anarchist comedy. Soderbergh directed, produced, wrote, shot, and stars in the film, and he seems to have made it as a direct rebuttal to the mainstreaming of his career (his previous film had been 1995’s film noir update The Underneath). He opens with a direct address speech in which he declares that this is “the single most important film you’ll ever see,” which, of course, signals us to take absolutely none of it seriously.

The plot is purposefully incoherent, mixing a trio of storylines in madcap fashion. Soderbergh stars as two characters: The first, Fletcher Munson, is a downtrodden office drone working for a Scientology-like corporate cult (one can feel Kafka’s influence here). His other role is as Fletcher’s doppelganger, Dr. Jeffrey Korchek, an outgoing sweatsuit-wearing dentist. The other main character is a goggled exterminator named Elmo Oxygen (David Jensen), whose primary purpose in life seems to be bedding the lonely housewives whose homes he exterminates.

Schizopolis is obsessed with language, and Soderbergh plays with communication among the characters as a source of both unexpected comedy and as a way of pointing out how lines of communication have broken down. In the former case, there is a scene in which Soderbergh’s Fletcher has one of those banal, fleeting across-the-street conversations with his neighbor, saying, “Is your wife coming over tonight? Because her big ass always leaves me satisfied,” to which the neighbor replies quite happily, “Nice of you to mention her. She enjoys sex with you much more than she does with me.” To illustrate communication breakdown, Soderbergh uses a number of rhetorical tricks, particularly conversations between Fletcher and his wife (Betsy Brantley). To illustrate how they have grown complacent in their connection, they don’t talk to each other, but rather describe in summative form what they would be saying. So, instead of a bland “Hi” each evening, Fletcher says, “Generic greeting,” to which his wife replies, “Generic greeting returned” (the fact that Brantley is Soderbergh’s ex-wife gives these scenes an odd sense of breaking down the boundaries between external and cinematic realities). Later, Soderbergh goes even further by overdubbing all his characters’ lines in Japanese and Italian without any subtitles.

The film is filled with all kinds of others bizarre odds and ends that don’t add up to anything other than their own quirkiness. Soderbergh repeatedly returns to peripheral characters who have nothing to do with the main plotlines, including a man being interviewed in a park and another man who’s being chased by asylum guards and running around naked except a shirt bearing the film’s title. Soderbergh plays with all the cinematic conventions, inserting cartoonish sounds, utilizing discontinuity editing at unexpected moments, speeding up the photography and changing the film stocks. It’s almost as if he were regurgitating everything he had ever heard or read about filmmaking, from avant-garde pioneers, to Italian neoralism, to the French New Wave, to the fantasy-comedies of Terry Gilliam.

None of that is particularly revelatory, as it’s been done before. However, if there is a revelation in Schizopolis, it’s Soderbergh himself, who proves, in his only acting role to date, to be an extremely gifted comedic actor. With his narrow face, receding hairline, and dominate nose, he runs the physical gamut of expressions and moods. As Fletcher, he perfectly embodies a sense of soul-deadening conformity, except for moments when he’s either masturbating or making strange faces in the bathroom mirror at work (which is, by the way, the single funniest scene in the movie). He then changes gears completely as the extroverted Dr. Korchek, a randy man with an overactive ego and a penchant for irritating catechisms about dental health (for example, “You don’t have to floss all your teeth, just the ones you want to keep”). As director-writer-producer-cinematographer, Soderbergh proves in Schizopolis that he has absorbed a lot about filmmaking and can parody cinematic conventions both avant-garde and mainstream. But, when it’s over, you’re left questioning whether a great comic actor has missed his true calling.

Schizopolis Director-Approved Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio1.85:1
AudioEnglish Dolby 1.0 Monaural
SupplementsAudio commentary by writer/director Steven Soderbergh
Audio commentary by producer John Hardy, casting director David Jensen, actor Mike Malone, and sound mixer Paul Ledford
“Maximum Busy Muscle!”: deleted scenes and outtakes
Original theatrical trailer
DistributorThe Criterion Collection / Home Vision Entertainment
Release DateOctober 28, 2003

The new high-definition anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) transfer of Schizopolis was taken from a 35mm interpositive. The image is uniformly excellent, with strong, rich colors and good detail. The film features a number of different visual media, including extremely grainy film and video in which you can see the lines of resolution, all of which are nicely reproduced and stand in contrast to the rest of the film.

The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack, transferred from the original 2-inch analog master mixes, is clean and clear throughout.

The two audio commentaries on this DVD couldn’t be any different. The first, in which writer/director/star Steven Soderbergh interviews himself, is right in line with the parodic tone of the film itself. Although speaking in serious and pseudo-profound tones, Soderbergh’s commentary is really one long joke in which he acts self-consciously pompous and tells outright lies. It’s hilarious to listen to, but you won’t learn much about the film itself. If that’s what you’re interested in, you can listen to the second audio commentary, which features producer John Hardy, casting director David Jensen, actor Mike Malone, and sound mixer Paul Ledford. Although laid-back, it is filled with interested anecdotes and behind-the-scenes information. The only other supplements are an eight-minute section titled “Maximum Busy Muscle,” which is a montage of outtakes and deleted scenes, and the original theatrical trailer.

Copyright © 2003 James Kendrick

Overall Rating: (3)

James Kendrick

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