Take heed readers and moviegoers. Do not be deluded by the fact that this is a Steven Soderbergh film and should have a standard of “excellence” attached to it. Do not be led down the primrose path and into the theater because porn star Sasha Gray is making her “legitimate” acting debut (down boys, down). Although there are a few glimmers of interest and worthwhile technical aspects of the film, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is one experience that no one should be subjected to.
A capsulized look of the weeks leading up to the November 2008 Presidential Election as seen through the eyes of Chelsea (aka Christine to her clients), a high priced Manhattan call girl – $2,000.00 per hour to be exact. Providing the expected call girl services for sex, Chelsea prides herself on her additional offerings – the full girlfriend experience. More than just a “wham-bam-thank you ma’am” business, Chelsea promises conversation, romance, dating, fun. (Did I just say “conversation”?) Not the most attractive woman a guy could find for $2,000.00 an hour, she has an obsession with money and only wants to expand her business by moving into internet advertising. She hones in on and brags about the cost of her La Perla undies or her Steve Madden shoes by way of narrative given from the back of her limo. Looking at every customer as a “business deal”, Chelsea maintains a distance and remoteness with each of her customers while listening to the one lament they all have in common – the bad economy, their loss of money, tanking businesses – all of which begs the question, “What are you doing spending $2,000.00 on Chelsea?” (While she may look appealing, the synapses aren’t firing on all cylinders upstairs. She can’t even carry on a conversation with even a modicum of interest or skill.) Topping it all off, Chelsea has a live-in boyfriend. Chris, a personal trainer in a local gym, has delusions of grandeur himself and looks to make the kind of money that Chelsea makes through his own “expansion.”
Soliciting business advice from her own clients (which is as varied and impractical as they are), Chelsea takes the big leap into the world of the internet by placing her trust in “The Erotic Connoisseur”, self-proclaimed high priced sex guru who runs a very affluent and influential website on which Chelsea’s top competition can be found marketing their wares. However, Chelsea needs to insure a good review and thus pimps herself out for free in exchange for a good review. (If you’ve made it this far in the film stay to the end just to find out what review the Connoisseur gives her.) In the meantime, Chris is soliciting his own business advice and cozies up with business hedge fund moguls he trains. Pot bellied and frustrated with their wives, these guys all have one thing in common – they still think they’re frat boys in college. And while Chris’ sales pitches make more money for the gym, the re’s no gold at the end of the rainbow for Chris. Making his life even more frustrating, Chelsea has found a client with whom she would like to explore a real “boyfriend” experience, leaving Chris out in the cold.
As I said, THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is an experience – a forgettable one – and that is due to Sasha Gray. It took me a good portion of the night after screening this film to contain my laughter and head shaking over how pathetic, untalented and ridiculous Sasha Gray is with a “legitimate” performance. The girl can’t act her way out of a paper bag. While I understand Soderbergh’s intent to have Chelsea “detached” and “business like”, Gray’s performance is so far below that, it pains me to know good money was spent on her performance in this film. Monotone, one dimensional, unsympathetic, uninteresting, boring. It all makes me ask time and again, who would ever pay $2,000.00 an hour to be with her character of Chelsea (or Sasha for that matter). Thankfully, for a good portion of the movie, she is eating because it gave her mouth something to do other than open it and make some vacuous bland comment. There are not enough words to describe how ridiculously bad she is in a legitimate acting role. Even small touches like playing with a man’s hair is not only unconvincing but so poorly acted it looks as if she has never touched a guy’s hair before or actually engaged in any small talk. Disturbing throughout is her inability to look anyone straight in the eye. Much of the film is done as a casual interview with a journalist in a restaurant. With every answer, Gray looks away from the interviewer and gazes down and to her right as if reading cue cards stapled to the table cloth. There are not enough words to describe how ridiculously bad she is. Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad!
I have to give props to Chris Santos. With this first acting role, it is clear that with some coaching, he has potential in this business. Emotional and energetic, he really puts himself out there. While a little lacking in the scenes with his employer at Hype Gym, where he gets a chance to have fun, hang with the guys or blow up at Chelsea – he reels you in. I hope we see more of him
in the future and that he considers looking at this as a career and does whatever necessary to hone his skills. The raw talent is there. However, as comes as no surprise, there is no chemistry between Santos and Gray that translated to the screen and their characters in any fashion. The only commonality between the characters is their respective desires to get ahead in business, but they lack any chemistry. (Actually, Gray had no chemistry with anyone.)
Absolutely over-the-top, hysterical, have you in tears laughing is Glenn Kenny as The Erotic Connoisseur. An absolute riot…and the voice over of his “review” of Chelsea/Christine is to die for!!!!!!!
Written by the team that brought us “Ocean’s 13″ and “Rounders”, David Levien and Brian Koppelman, now bring us a story that is interesting in its premise and methodology, told narratively by way of an interview edited with visual flashbacks bringing us into the present. Lacking, however, is anything anywhere that gives us an idea as to what makes our “heroine” Chelsea tick. Why an “escort”? Some traumatic childhood event? There is no backstory to give us even an ounce of a reason to like her character or care anything about her. I will say though, the use of a Hasidic jeweler as one of Chelsea’s clients adds an interesting dynamic and message to the film – the fact that diamonds are a girl’s best friend and let’s face it, there is something funny about a guy wearing a yarmulka who gets his jollies stripping while just being held by a half-naked Chelsea, providing a sense of confession or absolution to the story and Chelsea’s life. Chris’ story sparks curiosity, particularly when he heads out with his hedge-fund boys to Vegas for the weekend. Why is he on the trip with the older semi-pot bellied guys? Is he their entertainment or is he there to score them “escorts”, the irony of which is not lost on me considering his “girlfriend” is an escort. Chris is actually the most interesting aspect of the film. But again, one of the biggest questions that looms during and after screening this film (beyond Gray’s involvement), is the improbability and ridiculousness of anyone paying $2,000.00 an hour for a girl like Chelsea and the entire financial irresponsibility of her clients.
But, now for the good part, technically THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE is another excellent experience from director Steven Soderbergh. Visually textured, the cinematography is engaging and impressive. There is an overall slick coolness to the color palette that every once in a while gets quick pop of vibrantly hued color that is even more outstanding and noticeable thanks to Soderbergh’s use of HD. Utilization of focal blurring of lighting and characters is edited perfectly with the events of the story providing for some truly beautiful imagery and creating interest. It was nice to see Soderbergh using several long extended shots evoking their own level of visual interest and appeal. As comes as no surprise, Soderbergh employs some rather interesting camera angles, particularly inside cars. I did detect an extremely poor balance with sound in a key scene involving Chris-Chelsea where, as she slid into the couch out of camera shot, her voice got much louder as if she was laying on the microphone while Chris’ volume was in keeping with being in the open room.
And let’s not forget the metaphoric symbolism going on from start to finish – not the least of which is the opening montage of a blooming flower and the lighting sequence. Check out the “pairs of half globes”- look like breasts. Then check out the 7″ long light tubes hanging from the ceiling – well, we know what they represent. And this is repeated throughout the film. While amusing, I found it to be a nice touch to the film – reminding us of the underlying themes going on. Also, nice bit of Soderbergh self-promotion with a bar scene where monitors are handing above the bar showing clips from Soderbergh movies, including THE BUBBLE with the beheaded dolls……..nice symbolism for the character of Chelsea – a body but no brain.
THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE – an experience you can afford to miss.
Chelsea/Christine – Sasha Gray
Chris – Chris Santos
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien.