Revisiting Schizopolis, Steven Soderbergh’s Weird, Wacky, And Only Starring Role
“In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see this picture again and again until you understand everything. In closing, I want to assure you that no expense was incurred bringing this motion picture to your theater. And now, filmed in its entirety, and proven to heal minor cuts and abrasions, we proudly present Schizopolis.”
That’s an excerpt taken straight from the opening monologue of Schizopolis, delivered by Soderbergh himself, to us (the metaphorical audience) from a stage in a literal auditorium. Frankly, this was not exactly how I expected this film to begin. I should say, even though I would certainly consider myself a fan of Steven Soderbergh’s work, I don’t think I was quite prepared for the mental onslaught that is Schizopolis, a film I watched based on a recommendation from my local video store (Shout out to Videodrome, Atlanta’s best). It was described to me as an experimental comedy that was not only written and directed by Soderbergh, but also featured him acting in the lead role. Color me intrigued.
So I rented it, expecting something closer to his other films that I’d seen and loved. I expected a tight script with some good humor and a driving story. What I got, however, was something totally different. This was a film that took most of the general rules of storytelling, and tossed them out the window. The crazy thing is, it worked. I loved it, and considering how successful Soderbergh has become in the last few decades, I found it really interesting that I’ve never met anyone else (outside of Videodrome) who’s seen Schizopolis.
So I figured it was worth a look again, and viewing this film through the lens of “Identity” really opens it up to a lot of interesting thoughts and dissections.
Without going too deep into the narrative of the film, for your own sake, Schizopolis follows Fletcher Munson (played by Soderbergh), a bored employee of a Scientology-esque self-help company. What follows is a mishmash of creative and weird vignettes that contain everything from slapstick humor to true postmodern strangeness. The narrative does have a through line, although it certainly takes some strange turns, with the strangest being a side story involving a man named Elmo Oxygen who speaks only in gibberish phrases. It’s a real sight to behold.
Munson eventually begins to follow a man who he believes looks just like him (and drives the exact same car). He peeks into the man’s home and realizes that the man is indeed him.
Normally, what happens next would infuriate me, but in a film like Schizopolis it somehow makes sense. Basically, Munson somehow assumes the identity of the other man, a dentist named Dr. Jeffrey Korchek (Soderbergh really does have a way with names), and becomes him. Not only is this the only film Soderbergh has ever acted in, but he plays two different characters in it! Well, sort of. It’s a bit hard to explain the logic behind Schizopolis, but that’s the point, right? A story in which a character just decides to assume the identity of an entirely separate character fits right in with every other weird thing that happens.
Side note: Reading film reviews from ’96 when the movie was released is a real treat. Nobody quite knew what to make of this weird film that was seemingly created out of nowhere, for nobody in particular.
It should also be said just how funny Steven Soderbergh is in this film. It really is crazy that he hasn’t acted more since this, because he very easily could have pivoted this into more roles, if he wanted to. But that’s the beauty of Soderbergh. He’s always been one of the most unpredictable directors Hollywood has ever seen.
Schizopolis is a story about identities, and I think if we take a look at the context surrounding the film itself, that’ll make it all the more interesting. Back in 1996, Soderbergh had just finished up a stretch of three consecutive films that failed to live up to the success of his groundbreaking debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Not to say that those three films are bad, by any means. Just a little underwhelming, perhaps.
Either way, and this is total and complete conjecture, Schizopolis feels to me like a response to those three movies (Kafka, King of the Hill, and The Underneath, in case you were wondering). It feels like a creator stuck in between ideas and identities, so he created Schizopolis and allowed his brain to just kind of explode onto the screen.
I don’t think it’s surprising that Soderbergh wound up making Out of Sight just two years later, which put him on the Hollywood map, and would set him up perfectly to later direct the Ocean’s trilogy. From a creative perspective, Schizopolis feels like a response to a time of uncertainty in Soderbergh’s career, a film that allowed him to expand his storytelling outside of the norm. After he got Schizopolis out of his system, Soderbergh went on one of the all-time great movie tears, directing five straight hits that still stand up today (Out of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, Ocean’s Eleven).
Part of what makes his career so interesting and unique is the fact that he doesn’t allow himself to become complacent. He continues to push the boundaries of filmmaking, although not quite to the extents of Schizopolis, but also not too far off. He’s “retired” multiple times, moved to television for a bit, directed two films on an iPhone, and even created an app with which to watch his latest HBO series. It’s almost as if he continues to create new identities for himself, while still remaining true to what makes him one of the most daring directors in Hollywood.
All I’m asking is that someone else watch Schizopolis, if only so I can talk about it more. I’m selfish.