1996 / 96m - USA
Comedy, Mystery
Schizopolis poster

Some, if not most of you, will know Steven Soderbergh as a rather nifty, but mostly commercial director. He worked on some wildly popular films, but in between those behemoth Hollywood projects Soderbergh always found the time to experiment and push boundaries. Schizopolis is no doubt his most otherworldly project, which is no doubt why it has received so little love. I watched it when I first got serious about cinema, finally coming back to it I wasn't entirely sure if it would still hold up. Luckily though, those worries were completely unjustified.

screen capture of Schizopolis

Schizopolis is Soderbergh's unique take on absurd comedy. There are whispers of a narrative here, but trying to make sense of it will only throw you deeper into the abyss so meticulously crafted by the director. Even though he starts the film with a monologue, cheekily explaining that when "you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, [to] please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours.", I wouldn't follow his advice and just let the film wash over you. It will surely save you some headaches.

The film is closer to something you'd expect from Monty Python, a collection of absurd sketches and situations with a feeble narrative backbone, which only serves as a hook for the weirdness. I will say that Soderbergh's absurdities are a bit crazier and more inventive still, less focused on classical comedy, more eager to confuse, surprise and dazzle. Because of that, the first 30 minutes or so may be somewhat tough to get through. With very little to hold on to, it might take you a while to get a grip on the film and its intentions.

Whatever plot there is, is of little consequence. The film follows Fletcher Munson, a low-level clerk who is suddenly tasked with writing a speech for a famed writer/influencer. While he struggles to get anything on paper, the world around him seems to be crumbling beneath his feet. Things get even stranger when he discovers his wife is having an affair with his own doppelganger, a well-off dentist. While that sounds a bit Lynch-like, don't expect to be wowed by a final twist or big reveal, the plot itself really amounts to very little.

screen capture of Schizopolis

On a visual level there's a lot going on. Soderbergh experiments with many different styles, from documentary-like footage to live action stop-motion work. Anything goes really, the sky's the limit. There doesn't seem to be too much thought or coherence behind these choices, but they do help to increase the feeling of anarchy that runs through the film. In that sense, the different camera techniques are still very functional, even though they don't always make sense within a specific scene or moment.

The soundtrack is no doubt the least challenging part of the film. While not exactly conventional, it is pretty tame and neutral. It tries to add some comedy to the film, but only tepidly succeeds. There's a myriad of different musical genres represented, but none of the tracks seem to have a big impact of the craziness that's happening on-screen. While it's clear that Soderbergh at least tried to make an impact with the music, I don't feel he succeeded very well.

The acting is on point though, which may be called a small miracle. It helps that Soderbergh himself takes on the lead. The man has a surprising talent for comedy, at times he actually reminded me a little of Andy Samberg. But the rest of the cast is pretty great too, which couldn't have been easy considering the parts they had to play. Either they just went with it or they had long talks with Soderbergh about what the hell was going on. Whatever they did though, it clearly paid off.

screen capture of Schizopolis

While the level of absurdity is pretty severe, there does seem to be a common theme that runs underneath the film. Most of the weirdness is related to the way we communicate with each other and how we use communication to mask our own hypocrisy. There's an exterminator talking gibberish, characters speaking in foreign tongues, husband and wife exchanging dry and descriptive lines of dialogue and an overly honest conversation between neighbors, just to highlight some examples. While it hardly explains everything happening here, it does present a good start for those wanting to try and make sense of it all.

Schizopolis is a tough film to recommend. Soderbergh pursues a unique and particular sense of humour that is sure to confuse and irritate people who are hoping to see a more coherent film. But if you're looking for something totally different, strangely off-beat and pleasantly absurd, dressed in up utter stylistic wackiness, then Schizopolis definitely has you covered. It's my favourite Soderbergh and one of the strangest comedies I've ever seen. If only Soderbergh would give this kind of silliness another try.