"Far less exposed than the title indicates"
Dir. Steven Soderbergh; writ. Coleman Hough; feat. Julia Roberts, Blair Underwood, David Hyde Pierce, Catherine Keener, Mary McCormack, Nicky Katt, David Duchovny (R)

Despite the big names in the cast (and the Brad Pitt cameo), casual moviegoers shouldn't confuse this film with Steven Soderbergh's last romp, Ocean's Eleven. Instead, the director — who has enjoyed a winning streak with both critics and audiences — has taken time between blockbusters to revisit his micro-budget experimental roots. He calls this film an "unofficial cousin" to Sex, Lies, and Videotape, and if anything, the emotional content of this story is more alienating than James Spader's impenetrable character in that one.

Formally, though, Frontal owes as much to Soderbergh's truly experimental comedy Schizopolis, which delighted in throwing the viewer off balance. Frontal is a movie inside a movie inside a movie — with a play, a magazine article, and a proposed screenplay thrown in to spice things up. The multiple overlapping fictions are often tagged visually, with image quality that tends to get uglier the closer we get to the film's basic "reality." (A great deal of the film was shot on a consumer-grade camcorder.) The filmmaker uses make-believe as a way to draw his characters indirectly, to show how what they aren't might hint at what they are. Most of the scenes here are of two people talking, but as the tale progresses, each conversation is haunted by a third or forth character we've met, whose life intersects with those on screen.

The film is billed as a comedy, but that term is used loosely here. There are a lot of laughs in Full Frontal, but they're often despairing ones: Keener's purely evil treatment of the underlings she is paid to fire; Pierce, the meek writer unfortunate enough to be married to her; Katt, in a play where he portrays Hitler as a pop-psychology-loving man who can't give himself to his lover because he's "taking a swim in Lake Me."

In the end, as the film's structural conceits fold in on themselves and the director pulls back the curtain one last time to reveal the mechanics of art, the viewer isn't quite sure what he is meant to take away from the experience. There is more than a bit of navel-gazing here, in this "movie about movies for people who love movies." Yet if any contemporary filmmakers have earned the right to be self-indulgently introspective for a moment, surely Soderbergh is among them — after spending so much time making big-budget movies safe for intelligent viewers again. mdash; John DeFore

"All aboard the Hiber Nation bus for a beary good time"
Dir. Peter Hastings; writ. Mark Perez; feat. Christopher Walken, Stephen Tobolosky, M.C. Gainey, Alex Rocco, Eli Marienthal, Haley Joel Osment, Candy Ford (G)

Judging from its previews, this latest Disney release was a definite "skip it." Yet, when I saw the film, I was pleasantly surprised. The premise is unoriginal; the slapstick is — well, just that; the sentiments and the jokes are corny; and the ending is predictable. But as they say, it's not the goal, it's the journey — a great mix of bluegrass, country, disco, and original songs keep the trip rockin'. Christopher Walken makes a great bad-guy banker, and cameos by Willie Nelson, Crystal, Elton John, Brian Setzer, and others keep the surprises coming. The quality is rounded out by the excellent work of Jim Henson's Creature Workshop on the bears. Sit through the first part of the credits for additional musician clips and one small clip at the end of the credits. — Lanette Miller

"Pondering and pursuing happiness, mixed success"
Dir. Jill Sprecher; writ. Jill Sprecher and Karen Sprecher; feat. Matthew McConaughey, John Turturro, Alan Arkin, Clea DuVall, Amy Irving, Tia Texada, William Wise, Barbara Sukowa (R)

Asked by his wife, Patricia (Irving), what he really wants, Walker (Turturro), a restless professor of physics, replies: "What everyone wants, to experience life, to wake up enthused, to be happy."

The one thing that binds the scattered stories within Thirteen Conversations About One Thing is happiness — the agonizing quest to define and obtain it. Writer-director Jill Sprecher follows the Altmanesque formula of crosscutting among four overlapping groups of characters whose lives are variations on the same perplexing theme. Worrying happiness like a bead are a cocksure young prosecutor named Troy (McConaughey), a chairwoman named Beatrice with beatific visions (DuVall), Turturro's restless academic, and a cynical claims adjuster (Arkin). Of these, only Arkin fully inhabits his role. His Gene English is a man so weary and wary of disappointment that his chief remaining joy is schadenfreude. He exults in the spectacle of a fellow worker made miserable by winning the lottery, and he tests another's annoying buoyancy by firing him.

Most of the characters seem contrivances of the screenplay, instruments of a tendentious operation. McConaughey's Troy is sacked too facilely, and Turturro's Walker winks as he lectures on entropy and irreversibility. A viewer would be happier with one compelling conversation. — Steven G. Kellman

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