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Schizopolis: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Stephen Soderbergh, Mike Malone, and Betsy Brantley

Written and directed by Stephen Soderbergh


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Review by Dawn Taylor                    


After garnering great, heaping piles of critical acclaim for his 1989 low-budget confessional sex, lies and videotape, director Stephen Soderbergh looked like he was solidly on his way to toiling as either a cult-acquiring art-house director or a journeyman hack-for-hire. He helmed a couple of interesting films with 1991's Kafka and the marvelous but little-seen King of the Hill (1993), one real clunker (The Underneath in 1995) and essentially set up the cameras and cashed his paycheck on the Spalding Gray vehicle Gray's Anatomy (1996).

Also in 1996, however, came Schizopolis. Suddenly, Soderbergh was on the map again.

Seeing that his career wasn't exactly spiraling upwards, the director made what's now obviously, in retrospect, a brilliant career move — he delivered another smaller-budget film, one so idiosyncratic and so bizarre and so challenging that it couldn't help but get talked about, even by people who hated it. And oh, yes, there were those who hated it. But it also found an audience who responded to the movie's bizarre charms, who found that if they could tolerate the movie's indulgences and work through its more difficult aspects then they were rewarded with a film that's in equal measures complicated and deeply funny. Love it or loathe it, Schizopolis re-established Soderbergh as an artist, enabling him to go on to make more widely enjoyed films like The Limey, Erin Brockovich, and Traffic.

*          *          *

Schizopolis's interconnected storylines concern Fletcher Munson (Soderbergh), a nondescript employee of a Scientology-like motivational organization called Eventualism. Struggling with a speech he's consigned to write for the group's leader, T. Azimuth Schwitters (Mike Malone), Munson takes time out to masturbate in the office bathroom, has vivid fantasies during mundane conversations with co-workers, and drifts through a non-communicative relationship with his wife (Betsy Brantley). At the film's halfway point, Munson discovers that he has a doppelganger in Dr. Jeffrey Korchek (Soderbergh again), a perennially track-suit wearing dentist. Apparently slipping into Korchek's life, Munson realizes that his wife is having an affair with the dentist — or more to the point, he realizes that he's now having an affair with his own wife, since he's now Korchek. The film now follows Korchek, who's being leaned on by his brother to help with some sort of drug-related debt, as he falls hard for a patient (also Brantley) to whom he writes a hilarious, offensively honest love letter. The film eventually focuses again on Munson and then, in the final half hour, mostly on Munson's wife.

To attempt to describe Schizopolis in too much detail is to go the way of madness, and it would spoil the surprises and challenges of the movie. Actors play multiple characters — or are they different aspects of the same character? — and often speak to each other in meaningless, rote phrases. Munsen's conversations with his wife consist entirely of descriptive expressions:

"Generic greeting."
"Generic greeting returned!"
"Imminent sustenance ...?"
"Overly dramatic statement regarding upcoming meal."
"Oooh — false reaction indicating hunger and excitement!"

A secondary character, an exterminator named Elmo Oxygen (David Jensen), speaks only in non sequitur phrases like "Nose army" and "Ambassador jumpsuit landmine," as do the women he with whom he has illicit affairs. And in the film's last segment, the characters played by Soderbergh speak in overdubbed Italian, Japanese, and French.

It's Elmo, in fact, who offers the key to understanding Schizopolis near the very end of the film, buried within a speech full of gibberish: "I'm talking about perception and communication skills. Houseplant." Indeed, while Soderbergh honors two of his directing idols, David Lynch and Richard Lester, by mixing self-indulgent weirdness with wacky, sketch-comedy humor (he even honors Lester by giving his name to a character to dies early in the film), the fundamental theme of the picture concerns the subjective manner in which we perceive others and the ways in which we attempt (and fail) to communicate. Munson and his wife talk at each other in stock phrases, giving the illusion of communication but never really hearing each other; Elmo's conversations are deliberate nonsense; Munson's co-worker is called Nameless Numberhead Man, while the patient who inspires Korchek's desires is dubbed An Attractive Woman #2. Characters say what the listeners are thinking, rather than the expected platitudes (the funniest being a funeral service with the officiate intoning, "Lester Richards is dead — and aren't you glad it wasn't you? Don't you wish you felt something?") The theme is made clear when the focus shifts from Munson/Korchek to Munson's wife. Treated throughout the film as an object of (alternately) lust, dispassion, or annoyance by both men, her version of the movie's events is presented. We finally understand what she was saying, words that weren't understood when she spoke them earlier in the film. But we also see that she's every bit as insular as the men with whom she was attempting to communicate — Munson, Korchek, and a third lover, also played by Soderbergh, all literally speak foreign languages to her ears.

Schizopolis begins with a pronouncement by Soderbergh that the film to follow is "the most important motion picture you will ever attend" and warning that "in the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything." Tongue-in-cheek, yes, but not necessarily untrue. Okay, it may not be the most important movie you'll ever see — but it is a film that richly rewards the viewer who comes back for multiple viewings, a movie made by a brilliant filmmaker who could have possibly become just another nameless hack director if it wasn't for this funny, fantastical dip into the surreal.

*          *          *

Criterion brings their usual class act to Schizopolis with a beautiful anamorphic transfer (1.85:1). The quality of the picture varies widely due to Soderbergh's experiments in different film stocks and techniques throughout the movie — if it looks grainy or scratchy on this disc, it undoubtedly was meant to look that way by the director. The original monaural soundtrack gets a digital cleanup and it's more than good, with the dialogue-driven audio coming through crystal clear.

Extras are slim, but welcome. Two commentary tracks are offered. The first, with Soderbergh interviewing himself, quickly loses its charm. It's funny, but not something you want to listen to for the length of the film — an occasional dip into it here and there is amusing (he takes credit both for writing Stephen King's novels and for inspiring Tom Cruise to get braces), but it's more of a gimmick than a helpful feature. Much better is the second track, featuring actor/casting director Jensen, actor Malone, producer John Hardy, and sound mixer Paul Ledford. Between talking amongst themselves about the cast on-screen, expressing their own occasional confusion about what was going on in the story, and offering behind-the-scenes technical anecdotes, it's an excellent addendum to the film. There's also a montage of deleted scenes that is mildly interesting, the theatrical trailer, and a booklet which offers an essay by Dennis Lim of the Village Voice.

— Dawn Taylor



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