Schizopolis, writer-director and first-and-so-far-only-time actor Steven Soderbergh (Sex, Lies, and Videotape), proclaims in the film’s introduction, is “the most important motion picture you will ever attend … proven to heal minor cuts and abrasions.” The story is that Soderbergh added this introduction, which assures us that any aspect we don’t understand is our own fault, after the film tanked at Sundance, but the scene isn’t really bitter or overly self-indulgent. It’s just weird. And, OK, maybe it is extremely self-indulgent, but the point is this: If you’re trying to “get” this movie, you really don’t get it.
Soderbergh plays Fletcher Munson, a white-collar bottom feeder at a pseudo-religious corporation pushing Scientolo … errr, Eventualism. More important than the L. Ron Hubbard satire though, is that Munson’s gotten a promotion. While his old job mostly seemed to consist of transcribing the alphabet and timing himself beating off in the office bathroom (don’t ask, ’cause there isn’t an answer), his new position requires him to write an important speech for Eventualism’s figurehead, T. Azimuth Schwitters (Malone).
The stress of the added responsibility nearly wrecks Fletcher’s already shitty homelife. If masturbating with a stopwatch isn’t enough of a warning sign that his relationship’s in trouble, Fletcher and his wife (Brantley, Soderbergh’s actual ex-wife) communicate so badly their dialogue is reduced to robotic summaries of perfunctory pleasantries. “Generic greeting,” Fletcher says when he walks through the door. “Generic greeting returned,” his wife replies with a quick cheek peck.
If that’s what passes for domestic conversation in Schizopolis, it’s no wonder that when exterminator Elmo Oxygen (Jensen) arrives, spouting seductive pillow talk like “arsenal nose army” and “ambassador jumpsuit landmine” to the neighborhood housewives, he’s an instant hit. Scenes of Elmo’s conquests (mostly the wives of Fletcher’s coworkers) are intercut with Fletcher’s struggle to write the speech. The surrealist nonsense is interesting and even sometimes thought-provoking, but in actual execution, watching two alternating scenes of nearly indecipherable dialogue is only fun for the first few minutes. It’s all setup for some pretty genius meta-punchlines later in the film, but you aren’t to blame if Schizopolis’s constant crossing of the line between brilliant and infuriating ultimately prevents it from clotting your shaving cuts.