Thursday, November 20, 2008

In Depth Review: Schizopolis

Schizopolis (1996, Steven Soderbergh)

Schizophrenia itself is a psychotic syndrome which prevents a person from interacting with reality in accordance with our everyday notions of normality. It creates a disconnect with reality that exists in that person's mind.

Alright, if you would all be so kind, let me set this up for you. You have seen office job dramas and comedies, correct? Good, that means you are equipped with some knowledge of how they work. You have see some family/marital dramas and comedies, correct? Excellent. That means you have a decent grasp of how those normally play out as well.

Schizopolis is an office job, marital drama comedy that throws everything you know about those genres out the window. To top it off, it has a gay old time doing it.

Fletcher Munson (none other than Soderbergh in the flesh) has an office job at, I'm guessing, some kind of central office for a philosophical religious movement, à la Scientology. When their prime speaker's speech writer suddenly dies of a heart attack, Munson is called upon to take over the all important duty of writing the speeches that will ensure that their books and other products continue to sell. There are worries within the company (ironic no?) that there may be spy in their midst. Or a mole, Or a spy and a mole! To add to the pressure on Muson's mind and heart, his marital life has become about as enthusiastic as watching an apple rot (no offense to those who enjoy that kind of thing).

But this is where simplicity in plot ends and creativity and playfulness in execution begin. Schizopolis, its title seemingly derived from term schizophrenia, is not there to satisfy the norm but to subvert it. Dialogue, cutting, plot elements, all are given a shot of some wild energy in the arm. A case in point is when Munson returns home from the office and is greeted by is wife with words and phrases that literally express the mundane emotions that both are experience at their stage in this marriage. There is no 'How was your day?' or 'What is for dinner?' Rather, Soderbergh has his characters quite literally say things like 'Bored query regarding day.' and 'Fake enthusiastic description of evening's meal.' to get ideas across. I found this scene not only hilarious but highly effective in turning what we have come to expect from such scenes on their heads. These scenes are so often boring in movies. Why not shake them up? With regards to real life, married couples do, some of them at least, reach this hurdle in their lives. There comes a time when a relationship reaches a point of stagnation, when inspiration is lost, when the two lovers are 'going through the motions.' Soderbergh takes this dark and sad moment and serves it on a gold platter. The produced result is therefore twofold and therefore makes the scene all the more poignant. There is another example of this technique (in a way) involving an exterminator and a housewife who become involved with each other, but I don't want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that the dialogue serves to poignantly deconstruct scenes that, in any other drama, may appear as banal and over-used.

Munson's character, for a short period of time, goes through an out of body experience, or should I say, places his mind and soul into the physical body of another man. It just so happens that this other man looks exactly like him. But the man has a nice house and seems fit, so why not give it a try? Well, such a decision comes to bite him in the end in the strangest and funniest of ways. Even when he thinks he may no longer be himself , he still is. Indecicive, cowardly and emotionally weak. Be careful what you wish for...

On a few occasions there are brief television news reports shown that deliver headlines which are preposterous to say the least. I've read that they are unrelated to the overall narrative, but I would argue that as comedy, and more specifically as tools of the absurd, they fit in just fine within the confines of the film. In fact, dare I say they even add to the experience of it all.

The third act switches perspective temporarily as we see a bit of the story through the eyes of Munson's wife (Betsy Brantley). This change of perspective is refreshing in what, up until this point, has been an already refreshing movie experience. She herself is not in the most enthusiastic of moods regarding her marriage. She seeks something different, perhaps a little exotic even. This is when her husband begins to respond to her in Japanese, her lover (a dentist played by...well, I've already said too much) in Italian and another person she meets in French. Whether she has a hyper imagination or whether we are supposed to believe this is all really happening is besides the point I believe. The movie invites the viewer for a wild cinematic ride that disregards typical narrative conventions.

Many of the scenes are connected to each other in a narrative sense, other not at all. The story itself, for those with a minimal attention span, is easy enough to follow, but I'm unconvinced that it is the story which Soderbergh wants the viewer to remember first and foremost. That's not to say that there is nothing to think about or nothing of any intellectual value to found here. On the contrary. Its post-modernist structure and feel only means that the film is working on a another level, one that few directors choose to tackle and when they, often fail. Here, emotions are thrown against the wall for all to see (characters and viewers alike), the dialogue is as witty as it is inventive and certain character relationships border on the absurd. I've always said that as a movie buff, I tend to possess more mainstreams tastes than most. From what I gathered while watching Schizopolis, it's a film that simply needs to be felt first, understood later. I wonder if Soderbergh ever topped himself (mind you, I still have to wait about a month before I can see Che). The film succeeds in juggling honesty, comedy and uniqueness all in one untidy package. All the better for it. By the half mark, I didn't want the package to be get cleaned up, I enjoyed the lovable mess that was Schizopolis.

In the most bizarre turn of events, the best compliment I can give Soderbergh's film is that it is a joyfully schizophrenic experience. I may be beginning to understand the often said 'genius' behind this director's work. Now if only he had stopped making those Ocean movies after the first one, then we'd be talking...

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