Year: 1996. Running time: 96 minutes. Color. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Steven Soderbergh, Betsy Brantley, David Jensen, Mike Malone, and Eddie Jemison. Aspect ratio: 1.85:1. DVD release by The Criterion Collection.

Review by Joe Pettit, Jr.

The films of director Steven Soderbergh cover varied ground, ranging from art films such as Sex, Lies and Videotape, Kafka, and Solaris to blockbuster entertainments such as Erin Brockovich and Ocean's Eleven. It could be argued that it is difficult to gauge where his true interests and passions as a filmmaker lie. If you find yourself in that category, I suggest you check out Schizopolis to get a sense of the man behind the films.

Anyone who has actually seen Schizopolis might find that recommendation to be fairly odd. A maddening deconstructionist puzzle box, a linguistic hodgepodge, a cynical parody of L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology, an onanistic exercise in directorial self-indulgence, a wacky tribute to the madcap comedies of Richard Lester -- these labels can all be applied in the attempt to distill the different essences that make up the film. Schizopolis is all these things and more, the cinematic equivalent to such groundbreaking and idiosyncratic literary works as Ulysses, Naked Lunch, and The Waste Land -- all guilty of self-indulgent excesses, and all universally recognized as having demonstrated alternative ways of confronting the problems of narrative form in a world where the idea of a linear point of view had been shattered by the findings of physics and the irruption of cataclysmic world wars. In the cinema, its spiritual antecedents could be traced to the films of Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni, with a dash of Monty Python thrown in for good measure. Those viewers demanding linear narrative in their art films had best move along before they get hurt.

Despite its complexities, Schizopolis does have a discernible shape and structure. Divided into three sections, each part recasts recurring scenes through the eyes of different characters. Part one begins from the viewpoint of Fletcher Munson (Soderbergh), a recently promoted speechwriter for self-help and semi-religious guru T. Azimuth Schwitters (Mike Malone), founder of Eventualism. Following the death of one of his co-workers, Munson is assigned the task of writing the big speech for Schwitters' upcoming hometown talk scheduled at the end of the week. While taking a break from his speech, Munson goes out for ice cream. On returning to his car, he spots his doppelganger in an identical car to his own. Of course, he follows him home. As Munson spies on him through the windows of his house, a mental transference takes place and Munson finds himself seeing the world through his doppelganger's eyes. Part two takes place from the viewpoint of Munson acting as his doppelganger, dentist Jeffrey Korchek (Soderbergh again). Korchek cracks corny dentist jokes, constantly wears a jogging suit (even though the only place he ever runs is the fifteen feet from his car to his house or office), and is coincidentally having an affair with Munson's wife (Betsy Brantley, Soderbergh's wife at the time). Part three occurs through the viewpoint of Mrs. Munson, replaying events through her eyes, although the events seem to take place in an alternate universe where her husband speaks Japanese, her lover speaks Italian, and the motivations behind their actions are very different. A parallel plot is introduced wherein she encounters her doppelganger in a coffee shop after her affair with Korchek ends. She experiences a consciousness transference similar to the one that took place earlier between Munson and Korchek. This final transference seems to synthesize all the differing viewpoints and temporarily halts the dissolution of the Munsons' fragmenting marriage.

This bare bones summary does not even begin to tap into the textural richness brought to the film by a host of secondary characters, such as Elmo Oxygen (David Jensen), an enigmatic exterminator who speaks in a patois reminiscent of William S. Burroughs' surrealistic Beat speak and who is having affairs with just about all of the male characters' wives; Nameless Numberhead Man (Eddie Jemison), Munson's co-worker who is unhealthily obsessed with the rumor that there is both a spy and a mole at work within the office of the Eventualism corporation and who has a fetish for overweight women; Right-Hand Man (Scott Allen), the office manager and priggish toady for Schwitters; and Attractive Woman #2 (Brantley), yet another doppelganger for Mrs. Munson, whom Korchek falls head over heals for. Providing yet another layer of complexity, the events in the movie travel back and forth in time without warning. We see the projected demise of Munson and Nameless Numberhead Man sped up over protracted monologues. Fantasy sequences, as when Korchek daydreams of his happily-ever-after domestic bliss with Attractive Woman #2 while composing a wildly inappropriate love letter to her, spring up from the psyches of the film's characters. Surrealistic news reports signal the ending of a day's action. The entire film is framed by a sequence involving a seemingly unrelated pantsless escapee from an insane asylum being chased down by two white-coated attendants.

It all seems very confusing and silly on paper, yet the jumble works on the screen. Soderbergh has crafted a Rubik's cube of a film, satirizing the way we use language to obfuscate meaning and construct walls of solitude around our hearts. As his real life marriage was crumbling and his film career lay in shambles, Steven Soderbergh composed a linguistic comedy to demonstrate the disparity of our individual attempts to use language to interpret and communicate with the external world. If we take the meaning of the title Schizopolis literally -- divided or cleaved city -- we are perhaps given our most significant clue in unraveling the functions of the various characters and the seemingly unrelated skits. In a land filled with divided psyches where language has been rendered meaningless by jargon and clichés, none of the inhabitants of Schizopolis can ever hope to achieve true communication, and thus, can never truly learn to speak the other's language.

The Criterion Collection once again exhibits ongoing high standards in their presentation of Schizopolis. The transfer has been struck from a very clean print, (quite impressive considering the various types of film used to shoot the production) and is presented in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Two full-length commentaries are included. In the director's commentary, Soderbergh, who both conducts the interview and answers his own questions, once again defies mainstream expectations. Viewers expecting an explication of the film's structure or an explanation of the more ambiguous moments and characters within the film will be sadly disappointed. Assuming the personas of a barely interested interviewer and that of a self-indulgent, narcissistic auteur -- ironically, an accusation often levied at him because of Schizopolis -- Soderbergh crafts a parodic commentary in the spirit of Neal Pollack, praising his own genius and declaring the earth shattering and groundbreaking importance of this film. This commentary is often hilarious, providing tangential insight into the comedic and creative mind behind the film but is largely uninformative in providing specific details about the content and the making of the film. For that information, you will have to turn to the crew commentary conducted with producer John Hardy, actor and casting director David Jensen, actor and boom operator/grip Mike Malone, and production sound mixer Paul Ledford. Their conversation covers a lot of ground, from breezy reflections on the joys of no budget filmmaking to partial explanations of the structure of the film. All of the participants were disappointed at the poor reception accorded to the movie upon its release, but are not surprised at its cult following. Also included is a short film, "Maximum Busy Muscle," which contains an alternate take of the Elmo Oxygen interrogation sequence at the police station after the attempted assassination of Schwitters, as well as a flashback where Fletcher Munson firsts ask the future Mrs. Munson out on a date using generic pickup lines. Rounding out the set is a heady essay by Village Voice film critic, Dennis Lim, discussing semiotics and deconstructionist philosophy as it applies to Schizopolis.

Schizopolis is now available on DVD from The Criterion Collection in a new high-definition digital transfer, approved by director Steven Soderbergh and enhanced for widescreen television. Special features: two audio commentaries (Steven Soderbergh interviewed by Steven Soderbergh; and producer John Hardy, actor and casting director David Jensen, production sound mixer Paul Ledford, and actor Michael Malone); deleted scenes; and an original theatrical trailer. Suggested retail price: $39.95. For more information, check out the Criterion Collection Web site.