Mixtapes for Hookers

Bet She’s Not Your Girlfriend

Way back in early 2009, it seemed like every single person on the internet was talking about The Girlfriend Experience, porn star Sasha Grey’s entry into the world of mainstream film.  The movie had a really great poster, and it was made by popular director Steven Soderbergh, but it didn’t get a whole lot of distribution and disappeared rather quickly, earning (according to iMDB) less than a million dollars total.

Yesterday, lazing my way through a combination sick day/snow day, I finally saw the film, which is currently streaming on Netflix.  It’s interesting, for a Hollywood movie about prostitution.  But also it’s pretty frustrating, particularly if you like movies where anything actually happens.

Grey plays Chelsea, a Manhattan call girl whose clients are mainly sad-sack hotshots who spend most of their sessions dispensing unasked for financial advice.  (Invest in gold.  Vote for McCain.  Invest in gold.)  Meanwhile, Chelsea’s also talking to a reporter who wants to profile her, chronicling her day-to-day life (and wardrobe) in a diary, and trying to update her website.  She agrees to meet a man who runs an escort review site when she knows full well that he’s probably full of shit.  She is mostly if not all business.

Her boyfriend Chris is a personal trainer, and the parallels are… there.  They both make their money living off other people’s conceptions of beauty, they both pretend to be interested in wealthy clients that aren’t actually interesting, and they both lie a lot to make people feel better.  And–this is where the film’s very, very minimal plot kicks in–they both get offers to go on weekend trips with clients.

The film is tedious, and that’s kind of the point.  Chelsea makes her money by pretending to be interested in very boring things, and Soderbergh clearly enjoys implicating the audience in that.  When Chris takes off on a private jet to Vegas with a bunch of scummy douchebags, we are right there with them, talking about John McCain and making bad “stimulus package” jokes.

While Soderbergh could have taken the trashy route, he doesn’t.  Grey never takes her clothes off and we never see any fake sex.  That is good.  But although the film is intentionally boring for the sake of being boring, The Girlfriend Experience is still, well, boring.  (I paused it no less than three times to see how much time was left, and the whole movie is only 77 minutes long.  It ends mid-scene, which I was fully expecting since there’s not actually any plot to resolve, but knowing that just makes it seem even longer.)

The very meta use of distance doesn’t help.  Most scenes are shot quite a few feet away from the actors, which is an interesting trick but also kind of annoying after a while.  And Grey, though on-screen for most of the film, is almost always buried in murky shadows.  Her diary-style narration disappears for no real reason, and we have no idea why she’s writing any of this down, anyway.

Ten years ago, Soderbergh directed Full Frontal, an equally meta but slightly more plot-driven film that was critically loathed at the time, but which I loved thanks largely to the performances of Catherine Keener and David Hyde Pierce.  Unfortunately, The Girlfriend Experience has no great performances.  Grey doesn’t have enough to do, and when she does–in conversation with the boyfriend, say–she doesn’t sound especially convincing.  His acting is fine enough, I guess, but the real stars of the movie are the many, many anonymous johns, who are all pretty unterchangeable.

For its treatment of call girls as rather ordinary people who have to do very boring things, The Girlfriend Experience is great.  But unless you’re really into hastily assembled think-pieces, you probably don’t need to actually see it anytime soon.

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