The Girlfriend Experience

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Since 2000, Steven Soderbergh has directed a dozen films, plus all 10 episodes of the HBO series “K Street.” He usually handles the cinematography and editing himself, too (pseudonymously), making him essentially a one-man movie factory — except that his projects never feel like they came off an assembly line. If anyone in Hollywood has found a way to work as quickly and efficiently as Soderbergh without sacrificing creativity, I’d like to know who it is. And then I’d like to call you a liar, because that person doesn’t exist.

Soderbergh’s latest, “The Girlfriend Experience,” is another one of his art-house exercises (i.e., more “Bubble” than “Ocean’s Eleven”), with a bit of stunt-casting thrown in for good measure. The leading role, a high-priced New York call girl, is played by Sasha Grey, a hardcore-porn actress with more than 150 titles (in just three years!) to her credit but nothing in the “legitimate” realm until now. There’s a certain logic to hiring one kind of prostitute to play another kind of prostitute, of course, but those seeking titillation will find “The Girlfriend Experience” disappointing. There’s hardly any nudity, and only the suggestion of sex.

The film is hardly even about sex. It’s more about money. Not that there’s always a difference. Grey plays Chelsea, an ambitious young woman who has carved a niche for herself as a sophisticated, non-sleazy hooker for the discerning gentleman. Strangely, it would seem, she has a regular boyfriend, too, a fitness trainer named Chris (Chris Santos). They share a lavish apartment that is almost certainly paid for primarily by Chelsea. They seem more like roommates at first — I initially thought Chris was her gay best friend.

The film is set in October and November of last year, when the presidential election and the imploding economy were America’s primary topics of conversation. Most of Chris’ scenes focus on his efforts to increase his income by taking on more private clients or expanding his brand. Chelsea’s well-heeled clients (who come to her for physical needs, just like Chris’ do) babble about money and give her advice. Elsewhere, she meets with financial advisers and web designers who discuss her work as if it were any other enterprise, talking about how she can stand apart from her competition and “grow her business.”

You wonder if prostitutes see a decline in business in a down economy. Chelsea is an impulse buy, after all, a reckless purchase (well, rental) that offers no return for your investment. Not sound economic behavior at all. On the other hand, the men who hire her aren’t liable to be living on the streets any time soon, no matter how bad the economy gets. They’re the type who fret because their net worth has dropped from eight digits to seven. And if she truly provides “the girlfriend experience” — talking, listening, companionship, and sex — then is it really so different from supporting an actual girlfriend or wife?

This is a talky film, to be sure. Ninety-nine percent talk, one percent sex. That’s probably about the same ratio as it is for most men in real life. Written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman (the duo behind “Walking Tall” and “Ocean’s Thirteen”), the actual plot is pretty thin, and the scenes are presented out of order, probably to keep things interesting. We eventually come to understand that, unsurprisingly, Chelsea’s relationship with Chris has been strained by her profession, and that for all her posturing about keeping “love” out of the equation with her clients, it’s inevitable that she’ll meet one she actually likes.

I hope you are not alarmed to learn that Sasha Grey is not much of an actress. She’s stilted and emotionless, a completely blank slate. I’ve heard some people argue that she’s acting that way on purpose, that it’s the character who’s shallow, not Grey, but I don’t buy it. She conveys almost nothing.

Luckily, she’s usually not the only person in the scene, and some of what the other characters are saying is engaging, sometimes funny. To me, the film feels more “interesting” than “entertaining,” the kind of thing that I’m glad I saw but wouldn’t watch again. The conversations it provokes will probably be more enjoyable than the ones it depicts. Think of it as a jumping-off point for later thought.

B- (1 hr., 17 min.; R, a lot of harsh profanity, some nudity, a little sexuality.)

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