It’s been a rough summer for Steven Soderbergh. “The Girlfriend Experience” folded domestically at under a million. “Che,” despite netting $2.5 million in the U.S., barely made back half its reported $58 million budget worldwide. And, despite best-selling source material and Brad Pitt set to star, “Moneyball” collapsed a mere three days before shooting was supposed to start.
An upcoming Vanity Fair feature will supposedly vindicate Soderbergh from studio charges of irresponsibility, but at the time, in late July, it looked as if his career of hopscotching between indie and studio work was in jeopardy. In a despairing interview with the Guardian, Soderbergh said he was giving up on directing. It was tough to buy: anyone who regularly puts out one to two films a year is obviously a pathological filmmaker.
So now Soderbergh’s back on track with “Knockout,” a “Nikita”-type action movie, and promoting his Matt Damon comedy “The Informant!”, which opens next Friday. But is his “one for them and one for me” tactic still workable? In a selection from an interview with Le Figaro that Richard Brody translated at the New Yorker, Soderbergh says: “Right now the film industry is becoming more and more timid and even overcautious. I know, it’s pretty hard to understand. They’re afraid. Afraid of me, of my ideas and of my vision of history.”
This is a long way from the filmmaker who once claimed “Ocean’s Eleven” was the hardest movie he’d ever had to make because it was about nothing. If Soderbergh’s a guy who makes movies with the approach of solving a unique problem with each one, he seems to have run out of ways to solve the problem of the straightforward Hollywood film.
It’s not like Soderbergh’s dabbling in studio fare was ever necessarily that commercial. 2000’s “Erin Brockovich” and “Traffic” play it relatively straight, but since then every “mainstream” film he’s made has been a little off-kilter. The “Ocean”‘s series — especially “Twelve” — privileges pure style over content more than any other franchise around. “The Informant!” is Soderbergh’s first proper “studio movie” in two years, and early reviews are mixed, suggesting there’s a tonal clash between dramatic and wryly comic material. To me, that seems to mean not that Soderbergh’s “failed,” just that this supposedly commercial comic vehicle didn’t come out that way.
It suggests the strain of being a good studio stylist — livening up standard content without getting too strange to alienate audiences — is getting to be too much for Soderbergh. Even the audience-friendly “Knockout” is set to be scripted by Lem Dobbs, who wrote “Kafka” (Soderbergh’s first big flop) and “The Limey” (no one’s idea of a commercial movie).
If “Moneyball” was meant to be a hybrid of star power (Brad Pitt) and weirder Brechtian alienation effects (“Bubble,” “The Girlfriend Experience”), it was a gamble that fell apart — even Pitt’s presence wasn’t enough to convince Columbia to back such an unconventional film. But if Soderbergh’s no longer be able to rein himself in for mainstream work, it’s fine for us (and bad for Hollywood). As long as he really doesn’t quit.
[Photo: “The Informant!” Warner Bros. Pictures, 2009]