Director Steven Soderberg ("Traffic")'s vivid, somewhat experimental 1996 feature (which starts with the director addressing the audience, stating that if they don't understand something about the picture, it's their fault) is one of the director's most personal, as it not only has Soderberg directing and writing, but starring in the lead role. While becoming considerably more famous for his directing abilities in recent years, this feature shows the director has a very interesting, low-key quality as an actor that seems like it would fit in a Wes Anderson film.
Certainly, the picture is a difficult one to try and summarize. Soderberg stars as Fletcher, a speechwriter for the head of a Scientology-like movement. His wife (who he greets with, "Generic greeting." and "Obligatory question about the evening's activities.") is having an affair with a dentist, also played by Soderberg as the same character, yet a different person ("Oh my god, I'm having an affair with my wife.") A woman greets an exterminator and proceeds to speak nonsense (sentences made up of random words) to each other. We see a newscast about how the group Fletcher is working for is a "fraud". There's something about a mole in Fletcher's office that's leaking information; many of the office scenes have a bit of the same kind of dry humor as Mike Judge's "Office Space".
However, the director's announcement at the beginning is a good set-up for the film itself, which is clearly not meant for the masses or even most audiences. Soderberg, displeased with the general reaction to his "The Underneath", sought to make a low-budget, experimental film that was more about something he wanted to do than to satisfy most audiences (although I found this film more accessible and interesting than Soderberg's similarly experimental "Full Frontal"). While the picture does have three sections, it often slips into side stories or has moments that seem isolated. Small jokes and asides are thrown in at random. Some of it is quite funny (the generic chats between husband and wife are brilliantly played and very well-written) and some of it doesn't work, but, while fractured, it walks a good boundary between abstract and not that allows it to be seen as an interesting piece of art.
VIDEO: "Schizopolis" is presented by Criterion in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The new high-definition digital transfer was created from a 35mm interpositive on a Spirit Datacine. The picture is certainly a low-budget effort, but Soderberg (also credited as the cinematographer) once again offers interesting compositions, if not the gloss of his recent work. Sharpness and detail remained fine throughout the presentation - some of the interiors looked a little soft, but overall, definition was pleasant.
Flaws were minor throughout; a couple of little specks were viewed on the print, but the film looked clean and clear, otherwise. Edge enhancement did not appear, nor did any pixelation. A mild amount of grain was occasionally visible, but this was likely intentional. Colors remained natural and well-rendered.
SOUND: The film's mono soundtrack is dialogue-driven and low-budget. While some hiss and other issues do arise, dialogue and other minor sound effects are easily understood. The soundtrack has been remastered.
Commentary: This is a commentary with director/writer/actor Steven Soderberg and...director/writer/actor Steven Soderberg. This commentary track has Soderberg interviewing himself, which is rather amusing and actually keeps things organized. While Soderberg's commentaries are always quite informative and amusing, he sets himself up to discuss things here well and occasionally offers some dryly funny comments (his character makes strange faces in the mirror and Soderberg calls it his "dry run for his Oscar acceptance speech." Later in the commentary, Soderberg talks about how he is also a novelist who has been putting out novels under the pseudonym "Stephen King" and how they've done "really well". He also chats about how other filmmakers like Spike Jonze have bought their ideas from Soderberg for cash and/or percentage deals on their films and how "Schizopolis" manages to break through "the 5th wall.") It's all done as a goof, and the commentary manages to be quite entertaining and informative about what the director was trying to set out to do with "Schizopolis" and how he has reached his current level of "greatness".
Also: The DVD also includes a second commentary with actor Mike Malone, producer John Hardy, actor/casting director David Jensen and sound mixer Paul Ledford. The second commentary is a bit more informative, as while Soderberg's riffing on his exceptional level of talent was amusing, the cast and crew talk more about the experiences on this low-budget feature, tricks of the trade and the reaction to the film. Both tracks are certainly worthwhile. In an unusual move for a Criterion disc, the participants on the second track seem to have been recorded all together, which never seems to happen in a Criterion commentary. A trailer for the film, booklet and color bars are also included.
Final Thoughts: I liked "Schizopolis". It's hit-and-miss and certainly isn't for all audiences, but it has some interesting things to say, inspired scenes and good performances. Again, I liked it more than Soderberg's "Full Frontal". Criterion's DVD offers good audio/video quality (considering the budget) and a few enjoyable supplements. Recommended.
The Film ***