Dir. Steven Soderbergh
(2009, R, 77 min)
★ ★

To watch The Girlfriend Experience is to surrender to a malaise. Scenes drift from one to the next in director Steven Soderbergh’s loose, haphazard structure, and after watching with the commentary by Soderbergh and star Sasha Grey, I think of the late Gene Siskel’s standard for judging a film: Is it more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?

The advent of DVD has made this criterion more than a witty abstraction. Commentary tracks are a lot like documentaries of the actors having lunch, except the actors — or writers, directors, cinematographers, etc. — are talking about the film and not ham sandwiches, unless of course they’re eating especially good ham sandwiches while recording the track. For this film, Soderbergh and Grey discuss their respective businesses: Soderbergh is the director of mainstream films — and sometimes experimental little indies like this one — and Grey is a performer in adult films. Both are articulate about their work, and Grey’s poise and intelligence suggest Soderbergh might have been better off directing a film about her.

Grey plays Chelsea, a self-employed New York City call girl who specializes in the titular routine, in which she not only has sex with her clients but enacts a scenario of familiar intimacy: dinner and a movie, discuss politics and the economy, sleep together, and then part ways until their next appointment. What is most interesting about her is that she has a boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), who not only knows what she does for a living but discusses it with her casually and tries to cheer her up when she has a bad day on the job. Something about Chris makes him willing to undertake such a complicated arrangement, and something about Chelsea — whose real name is Christine — makes her worth the effort. A film about this dynamic — their agreements, compromises, and conflicts — might have been fascinating, but in this story it’s an undernourished subplot.

We spend most of the time with Chelsea in the workplace, sitting in on her “dates.” The problem is that her clients are dull as dishwater. They talk about their jobs. They talk about family members hitting them up for money. They talk about ten-thousand-dollar bar tabs. They talk about the economy — a lot; the film takes place just before the 2008 presidential election, when the bottom fell out of the financial markets, but if that’s meant to provide any meaningful subtext it’s lost on me.

We don’t learn very much about these men, we don’t learn very much about Chelsea through them, and we don’t learn very much about the sex industry either, other than that it involves indulging the tedious stories of men with disposable income. The BBC and Showtime series Secret Diary of a Call Girl had a more compelling perspective on the trade. The commentary by Soderbergh and Grey yields insight into another kind of sex work. The film — not so much.

Making matters worse is the structure. The film was largely improvised and shot in chronological order, but the finished product suggests Soderbergh threw the scenes in the air and reassembled them in random order. What is gained by jumbling the narrative? The story is not made more impactful, and details are confused that needn’t be. Interspersed throughout are scenes of Chris trying to expand his business as a personal trainer and flying to Vegas; I don’t know why these scenes are in the film. I don’t know why a lot of the scenes are in the film. They float around for 77 minutes, absent a guiding purpose.