Uneven 'Girlfriend' manages to be interesting

'The Girlfriend Experience" is another one of Steven Soderbergh's peculiar, experimental productions that people mostly admire and respect more than like. It's the kind of low-budget, on-the-fly whatzit he does in-between big-budget, Hollywood flicks (usually with his A-list potna George Clooney) to remind himself that he's still an independent filmmaker, ready and willing to drop some avant-garde, baffling stuff at the art houses whenever he dang well pleases!

For this film, he did something that sounded a bit gimmicky when I heard about it: He cast an adult-film actress in the lead. I'm still trying to figure out how he came across the woman he chose, petite brunette Sasha Grey. Truth be told, Grey doesn't even look much like a porn star. She looks way too, well, natural. With Grey's lack of surgical enhancement and generic facial features, you wouldn't suspect that Grey has appeared in such back-of-the-video-store titles as "Girl Train," "King Cobra" and that long-awaited sequel "My Evil Sluts 3" (all actual titles, by the way).

Perhaps that's the reason Soderbergh cast her in the first place. As you watch, you may find yourself fascinated with what Grey brings to her performance. As high-priced call girl Chelsea (not her real name, of course), Grey creates a coolly detached, meticulously emotionless persona. For Chelsea (and, for that matter, Grey), sex is nothing more than a job, which she treats the same way most people treat their jobs: something you just gotta do to make money.

In "Experience," Chelsea gives her clients the titular treatment. She isn't their own personal sex slave so much as their personal therapist. Except, instead of prescribing Prozac or Zoloft at the end of a session, she gives them sex. And, sometimes, sex doesn't even enter the picture. She mostly sits there and listens to their problems. And the men she deals with have a lot of problems, mostly financial. And that's what "Experience" is really about.

Set in the weeks leading up to last year's presidential election, "Experience" is more like a revealing study in upper-class panic and paranoia. Chelsea's clients moan and worry about everything from expensive bar tabs to less-lucrative job offers to contracts they've lost. (I haven't seen so many rich folk freak out about cash in a movie since "Arthur 2: On the Rocks.") Even Chelsea's boyfriend (Chris Santos), a personal gym trainer, is quietly looking for other side gigs to keep some change in his pockets.

Needless to say, the only person who isn't worrying about money is Chelsea. With her $2,000-per-hour rates, she believes she can make enough loot to keep herself knee-deep in Michael Kors dresses and La Perla drawers. But, as both she and the audience learn, even an upscale lady of the evening isn't immune to this hellacious financial crisis.

Much like Grey's performance, Soderbergh tries to keep his game face on at all times in "Experience." The movie is virtually a scattered jigsaw puzzle, with scenes all scrambled around. But not so much that you don't get a sense of the plot (provided by screenwriters David Levien and Brian Koppelman). Visually, Soderbergh keeps his distance from the actors, as the camera virtually lurks in on them during the intimate, one-on-one moments that make up most of the movie.

While the movie seems a bit uneven, especially when it sways away from the upper-crust bellyaching to have the usually sensible Chelsea breaking her own rules and risking everything to spend the weekend with a guy she barely knows, "The Girlfriend Experience" is still an intriguing curio. It's almost a time capsule, really, as it shows how this time in American history reduced the wealthiest of men to crying babies.

It's fitting that the movie ends with Chelsea locked in a long, cathartic embrace with a man. In these recession-plagued times, everybody needs a warm, consoling hug.

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