A warped blend of Luis Buñuel, Richard Lester and the Dada movement (and much, much more), Steven Soderbergh's Schizopolis is such an oddball movie that I'm stepping into a minefield by reviewing it with only one viewing under my belt. Featuring fractured narratives, extraneous footage, perversely cogent gibberish, different film stocks, conflicting perspectives, bountiful sight gags, freewheeling satire...where was I?
Schizopolis opens with Soderbergh speaking to the audience, a Cecil B. DeMille parody added after a less-than-enthusiastic reception at Cannes. In it, he jokingly stakes a claim for the film's brilliance: "In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing," he calmly informs us, "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."
Soderbergh plays the protagonist, Fletcher Munson, a pencil-pusher working for L. Ron Hubbard stand-in T. Azimuth Schwitters and his corporate way of being Eventualism. Schwitters' speechwriter, Lester Richards (guess), dies of a heart attack and Munson, so bored and boring that no one in the company has anything against him, moves up to the position. The rest of the office is currently wracked in paranoia over reports of a mole, which leads to a running gag of "Who's on first?" confusion: some take the term "mole" literally. When a worker explains that a mole is a spy, it only makes matters worse, as someone interprets this explanation to mean that there is not only a mole but a spy for that mole. "That's twice as many as a minute ago!" exclaims one perturbed desk jockey. Before long, everyone in the office is so worked up over finding the mole that a number of employees begin to suspect even themselves.
Perhaps as a result of the corporatization of religion (or whatever it is Eventualists wish to label their cause), personal relationships in this world have been reduced to basic, bureaucratic exchanges; Fletcher comes home and yells, "Generic greeting!" to which his wife (Betsy Brantley) responds, "Generic greeting returned." People also don't seem to have any social filter: at Lester's funeral, the chaplain begins the eulogy with "Lester Richards is dead, and aren't you glad it wasn't you?" Of course, Soderbergh tells Schizopolis through the mind of its mysterious, silent and piercingly perceptive protagonist, so we might infer that he simply gazes through the B.S. of the world.
But the director does not stop with simply painting a world broken by ennui; no, when he hits the second part of the film, all hell breaks loose. Fletcher meets his doppëlganger in a parking garage and becomes the man, Dr. Jeffrey Korchek (still Soderbergh), dentist and Muzak lover. While in Korchek's body, Fletcher discovers that his wife was in an affair with the dentist -- I'm struggling to find a funnier line in Soderbergh's canon than "I'm having an affair with my own wife. To further complicate matters -- matters can always be further complicated in this film, it seems -- Fletcher/Korchek falls in love with a client (dubbed Attractive Woman #2) who looks just like his estranged wife.
It's not hard to determine that Schizopolis is a comedy, but nailing down precisely what it's meant to be attacking is as tricky as bomb disposal. The bare conversations between Fletcher and his wife suggest a lack of communication, a theme exacerbated in the film's final section, which shifts POV onto Mrs. Munson, who hears dialogue coming from the other characters in foreign languages. A subplot involving an exterminator, Elmo Oxygen, takes this idea one step further: the exterminator works his way through the suburbs, bedding all the bored housewives who answer the door and using cameras inside the houses to take naughty pictures of himself (a nod to Soderbergh's sex, lies & videotape, perhaps?). Elmo's duologues with these women are some form of jumbled approximation of the words that they should be saying -- "nose army" for hello, "smell sign" for goodbye -- yet everyone understands each other perfectly. He even shags Schwitters' wife and sends the guru the videotape. One of his assistants watches it with him and offers blunt explanations for Schwitters' bemused questions. "It looks like he's getting ready to screw your wife," the man says, but Schwitters is too caught up in his own boring ethos to react. "Hmm," he finally offers, "I wonder what that's like." Elmo's scenes recast the film as a breakdown of semiotics, a destruction of the basic meaning behind the symbols and language in a Dada-esque frenzy.
Yet Soderbergh stuffs every crack of the film with so many random asides one wonders if such a reading can be trusted. Schizopolis takes on a Pythonesque tone at times, such as a random aside to a man holding a press conference to redress the slanderous implications of the phrase "I've got to piss like a racehorse" on thoroughbreds. Each day ends with a nonsensical news report announcing bits of information with no application to the rest of the film: at the end, a reporter tells us that a New Mexico woman was chosen to be the "Final Arbiter of Taste and Justice" and would have the final word on all matters of life. As the director is wont to do, he messes with the film's diegesis, playing a rapid montage of a doctor describing Lester's heart attack as Fletcher reflects upon the dietary habits that match his own, replacing the sounds of humans eating with pigs grunting and squealing. The stock switches between gorgeous 35mm and grainy Super 8, though this perhaps isn't a completely honest clue between Fletcher's reality and reverie as so much of the world around him is off-kilter.
All in all, Schizopolis is some sort of sophist nightmare, daring you to figure it out by hiding its illogic and lies in plain sight. No one interpretation is right, and I have a nagging suspicion that they might all be wrong. At least it's honest about its deceit: at one point the words "IDEA MISSING" appear on-screen, admitting that the director didn't bother. I flipped through the accompanying Criterion essay and was amused to see contributing writer Dennis Lim noting that even the fans consider this "an intellectual indulgence," as that's what I'm sorely tempted to call it. Yet there is a dizzying fun to be had here, and Schizopolis is not, as Lim (writing in the voice of a reserved supporter) describes it, a "belated student film" that Soderbergh -- then stuck in a critical and commercial drought following his beloved debut -- needed to get his act together; it's too cheeky to be such a self-serious project.
I was struck recently (and more so now) by Soderbergh's testimony to Congress concerning Internet piracy and his desire to curb it; I'm not saying he's wrong for expecting payment for his work, but his film, especially Schizopolis, seems to be born of cinema. He plays with the conventions so much that it seems odd he would side with the studios on any matter, even one that benefits him as well. But that's neither here nor there: Schizopolis is rough around the edges but gleeful where it counts, and as a depiction of communication breakdown for people it's as effective as Lost in Translation (though it replaces that film's affecting heart with anarchic silliness). What's perhaps most incredible about this insane ride is how much he could recycle for decidedly more mainstream features like The Limey and Out of Sight.