No one can accuse Steven Soderbergh of being predictable. His last movie, Che, was a four hour art film based on the book Reminiscences of the Cuban Revolutionary War by Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. Before that was Ocean’s 13, a fluffy money-maker starring every a-lister in Hollywood. His new film, The Girlfriend Experience, is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it (it’s only 80 minutes) impressionistic look at the life of a call girl played by a porn star whose previous credits include Don’t Make Me Beg and Secretary’s Day 3 to mention two of the more dignified titles. Unlike Michael “Blow ‘em up real good” Bay or Brent “Chris Tucker is a genius” Ratner you never know quite what to expect from Soderbergh.
In some cases the results of his cinematic noodling are fascinating; Bubble was a little seen but riveting character study. Other times his auteur ways get the better of him. Full Frontal was an early and well intentioned stab at digital filmmaking but fell just short of success. The Girlfriend Experience falls somewhere between the two.
Leaving the conventions of his mainstream films behind Soderbergh presents a few days in the life of an up-and-coming escort named Chelsea (Sasha Grey), a business minded hooker who provides “the girlfriend experience.” She behaves like her client’s girlfriend, providing emotional (if artificial) intimacy in return for a fat paycheck. In her “real” life she is in a committed relationship with personal trainer Chris (Chris Santos) but their bond may be broken when she steps over a line and becomes attracted to one of her married clients.
On the level of a character study it’s an interesting look at the effect of selling not just your body, but also your emotions to the highest bidder. Chelsea lives in a superficial world—if she wasn’t attractive she wouldn’t be able to ply her trade—but unfortunately as a character she’s also deeply superficial and, dot over dot dot, not very interesting.
Grey, with her French manicure, thumb ring and the longest eyelashes this side of Bridget Bardot, wants to present the character as sophisticated but is more high school Lolita than New York high brow. Her performance is a notch above Debbie Does Dallas but Meryl Streep doesn’t need to worry about losing roles to her.
In the end The Girlfriend Experience, with its fractured timelines, wobbly camera moves and abrupt ending feels more like a tour through some of New York’s nicer hotel rooms, bars and restaurants than a genuine look at a real person.