Steven Soderbergh’s Schizopolis is less a film and more of a fascinating experiment that encapsulates a nineties zeitgeist while exploring themes ranging from the failure in communication to the mundane everyday routine of cubicle life. The film approaches it’s subjects with an off beat abusurdist sense of humor and explores different techniques giving he film a very surrealist and avant-garde feel. Much of this is evident right from the opening sequence as the audience sees the director speak to them, alluding to Cecil B. DeMille’s intro to The Ten Commandments, following into a very low budget commercial, reminiscent of something one that might aired on public access programing, for a self-help novel endorsed by Eventualism, a pseudo-religious following created by phony prophet T. Azimuth Schwitters. The commercial, an obvious reference to Dianetics, the first book that featured the teachings of Scientology, and it’s author L. Ron Hubbard, is both satirical as well as representative of he film’s low-budget look (in other words, viewers won’t mistaken this for Soderbergh’s more mainstream and commercial outings like Erin Brockovich or his Oceans’ franchise). The plot of the film is rather unique as well as it’s divided into three different segments. First, the film follows the character Fletcher Munson (played by the director himself) who has a cubicle job working for Eventualism, writing a speech for T. Azimuth Schwitters’ upcoming appearance. His marriage seems to have hit a standstill as evident to their interaction (Fletcher: Generic greeting, Wife: Generic greeting returned). the second segment follows Munson’s doppelgänger, dentist Dr. Jeffrey Korchek (played again by Soderbergh) who is having as affair with Munson’s wife. Korchek, however, becomes more enamored with one of his patients, which makes him end his relations with Munson’s wife. Korchek then begins to send her various love notes filled with perverse and morbid comments that later gets him a sexual harassment suit. The third segment then follows Munson’s wife during her affair as she encounters both Munson and Korchek (both of whom have their voiced dubbed with different languages). That only scratches the surface of the film’s universe which is filled with various eccentric characters from adulteress housewives, to an odd exterminator and reality star who speaks only in coded metaphors.
The film explores the lack of communication between it’s characters very interestingly, whether is between Munson and his wife or Korchek and his patient or even Munson’s Wife and Korchek. The film’s characters never seem to ever be on he same page with each other and Soderbergh shows this in various creative ways from audio dubbing to cryptic languages. The scenes with Soderbergh and Betsy Brantley, who plays Munson’s wife, have an added layer knowing that they were once married. One scene in particular that exemplifies this takes place between Korchek converses with his heroin addict brother’s drug dealer in which the dealer repeatedly says “8 hours your brother, 1500o.” The film is easily admirable; Soderbergh’s willingness to uses experimental techniques from speeding up some scenes to create a very surreal scenes or switch between film stocks to personify a character’s thoughts or strange interludes between some scenes satirizing news reports are all great little additions. Some sequences even seem prophetic as Soderbergh tackles big issues like Scientology or has one of his characters become the center of a nonsensical reality show. But while the film may be ahead of it’s time in giving a satirical look at such big issues, the film might come off a bit tame on such issues when watched by an audience today. Subjects like Scientology, while not as talked about through film and television back in the nineties, has become an easy target for many including comedians, sketch shows, and satirists during the past decade alone (the most popular and infamous being an episode of South Park). The same can sadly be said about office culture as well with Mike Judge’s Office Space in 1999 or even going back to Dilbert comics.
Soderbergh remains to be one of the most interesting director of his generation, being able to balance both artistic and commercial film-making and yet still no have any real characteristic directorial style. Being referred often as a “chameleonic filmmaker,”Soderbergh is one of the few big Hollywood directors working today who can have his cake and eat it to, routinely going from interesting independent features to big budget films with an all star cast (the only other directors that come to mind are Richard Linklater and Gus Van Sant). Schizopolis obviously belongs in the former category. But many times Soderbergh’s film, like Jean Luc Godard who seems to be an easy influence on the director, never really feel like films bu more like incomplete thoughts. Schizopolis suffers from this as well as it doesn’t have much of a resolution (the same could be said about Soderbergh’s newest independent experiment, The Girlfriend Experience, which itself feels like a semi update of Godard’s own 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her). While I don’t think everything in Schizopolis works and is sometimes flawed in areas where it does work, the film is a fascinating work from a major director.