CAST: Steven Soderbergh, Betsy Brantley, David Jensen, Eddie Jemison, Mike Malone ~ WRITER/DIRECTOR: Steven Soderbergh ~ YEAR: 1996
What’s it About?: Fletcher Munsen is a low-level corporate drone, part of the machine that keeps lifestyle guru (and author of the earth-shattering manifesto ‘Eventualism’) T. Azimuth Schwitters on the rails. He has a speech to write. He has a wife who’s having an affair. And he also has an exact duplicate – a dentist named Jeffrey Korchek – with whom he suddenly switches lives, leading to some extremely bizarre consequences…
The Film: Even with his wildly eclectic filmography (going all the way from the intense indie drama of sex, lies and videotape to the crime capers of Ocean’s Eleven and the sci-fi of Solaris), there’s very little in Steven Soderbergh’s work that will prepare you for Schizopolis. Filmed in 1996 as a stripped-down, guerilla-style filmmaking endeavour (after his last Hollywood film, The Underneath, proved to be a creativity-sapping disappointment), Schizopolis is a freewheeling mix of corporate satire, sketch comedy and absurdist insanity that’s a hell of a lot sharper and more complex than its initial scattergun structure would make you think.
Right from the opening, where Soderbergh addresses the audience (explaining that ‘in the event you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours”), the whole film has a seriously anarchic feel. It’s one of the most deliberately playful and comic things Soderbergh has ever done, with the film divided into three specific sections, and various scenes intercut alongside news reports, random cutaways (including a running gag of a man, naked except for a ‘Schizopolis’ T-shirt, constantly trying to escape from white-coated officials) and bizarre intertitles. It’s the cinematic equivalent of Soderbergh letting his hair down and just running wild – and for all the moments where Schizopolis is fantastically off-the-wall and undisciplined, there’s a surprising level of conceptual weirdness holding it all together.
Above everything, it’s a film about communication. From the way that randy insect exterminator Elmo Oxygen talks in fractured doublespeak to the housewives he seduces (“Jigsaw. Uh, fragment chief butter. Chief surgery mind?”) to the meaningless exchanges between Munsen and his wife (“Generic greeting!” “Generic greeting returned!”), Schizopolis is a film about human communication and how rarely it actually works – the fact that events can have a completely different perspective for different people, and that we rarely seem to know even the people who we’re supposed to be closest to. That this is wrapped up in a loose narrative alongside Philip K Dick-style reality shifts and news announcements about the state of Rhode Island being sold and turned into a gigantic mall just makes the whole film a bewildering and yet oddly fascinating experience.
Heavily influenced by Monty Python and the films of Richard Lester (best known for his work on Superman II and III, but also for directing the classic Beatles movie A Hard Day’s Night and other energetic works of Sixties cinema), Schizopolis is the kind of film that goes out of its way to confuse, but is also frequently hilarious, with Soderbergh himself (in his only onscreen acting role) turning out to be surprisingly good at deadpan comedy. The film gets an even weirder real-life twist with the knowledge that Munsen’s wife is played by actress Betsy Brantley, Soderbergh’s wife of the time (who he was in the process of divorcing while Schizopolis was made), and the tangled relationship between Munsen and his wife does have an odd sense of melancholy that you wouldn’t expect in such an off-the-wall movie.
It’s little seen, but Schizopolis is one of the key films to understanding Soderbergh as a director – it freed him up, and you can clearly see how his wild experimentation here impacted on almost all his future film work. The sheer level of energy and invention in Schizopolis is something to behold, and above everything, it’s a great example of a filmmaker heading off in an unexpected direction and simply trying to have as much fun as he possibly can.
The Verdict: Soderbergh’s surreal low-budget experiment is quite definitely not for everybody – but the mixture of broad comedy, bizarre satire and reality-bending weirdness makes it an absolute must for any lovers of cult cinematic oddities.