According to IMDb’s plot synopsis, Steven Soderbergh’s latest indie tryst, The Girlfriend Experience, starring porn star Sasha Grey, is a “revealing look at the world of prostitution from an elite call girl’s point of view.” While it’s true that Ms. Grey plays high-priced hooker Chelsea (a.k.a. Christine), the film is less a “revealing look at the world of prostitution” than it is a narcissistic indictment of the director’s own world. Rather than bravely and avidly explore lusty new territory, Soderbergh merely grafts the wheeler-dealer movie industry he knows so well onto the sex biz and calls it a day.
Like John Cameron Mitchell with Shortbus, Soderbergh has set out to make an un-sexy sex-related film (very brief nudity and kissing instead of screwing). All fine and dandy—if the director replaced the sex with something enlightening and/or entertaining. Unfortunately, this tedious, monotonous “Girlfriend Experience” is neither; it just plays like bad porn. Bored and boring Chelsea goes on dates with clients to fancy restaurants and spends time in her expensive apartment with her personal trainer boyfriend. She listens to pitches from guys wanting to help her expand her business and meets with a prying journalist who asks absolutely inane questions (ballsy Dan Savage got far closer to objective truth when he actually hired a hooker for his “exposé” rather than pepper one with wimpy, Neanderthal-level inquiries). In other words, The Girlfriend Experience is really just five typical days in the shallow Hollywood life of auteur Soderbergh.
Between the heavy-handed white collar/black market parallels—one john even complains, “I aged out of the business,” about his movie-directing career, while the film itself opens with Chelsea and her date discussing the indie flick they just saw (Magnolia Pictures’ much sexier Man On Wire)—and the intrusively upbeat score, The Girlfriend Experience gives off an air of desperation that isn’t pretty. The plot runs in one-dimensional circles, going nowhere like its eternally exploited, financially paranoid characters. No one in the forced-feeling cast turns in an engaging performance, though Chelsea’s buff boyfriend Chris, played by Chris Santos, is at least enthusiastic, and exudes a hunger appropriate to his character. Chris, like a true hustler, has a lust for money that the far too laidback Chelsea lacks.
Regardless of profession, moneymakers are the people who possess a love of the game. In reality it’s doubtful that a type-B personality like Chelsea would make all that much as an independent hooker (unless she were doing porn on the side and riding on that fame), while boy-toy Chris most certainly would be gay-for-pay escorting on the side. But then Soderbergh wouldn’t know such truths since he’d rather just scratch the surface than dig deep, to not venture too far from the safety of his own small moviemaking world. As someone who’s spent over a dozen years around the sex industry, six of those in a committed relationship with a high-end hooker (so to real-life prostitution exposé reporter Mark Jacobson, who tells Chelsea that he’s “never met an escort in a committed relationship,” I reply, in all honesty, that I’ve never met an investigative journalist in a committed relationship), I found The Girlfriend Experience completely unrecognizable. For nearly an hour-and-a-half I was simply a voyeuristic tourist in director Soderbergh’s sleazy, deal-making-breaking world.