May 28, 2009

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The Girlfriend Experience (R)
An expensive call girl and her personal trainer boyfriend navigate the difficult faux friendships with their clients and their strange relationship with each other in The Girlfriend Experience, a chilly but darkly wry movie from director Steven Soderbergh.

Chelsea (Sasha Grey) isn’t just a quick roll in the hay — she is truly a girlfriend for hire. We first see her discussing the movie she just saw — the documentary Man on Wire — with her male companion over dinner. Later, they sip wine and wind up in bed. It is, seemingly, the organic progression of an actual date between people who like each genuinely other. But in the morning we realize that this date comes with an envelope full of cash for Chelsea. She is not a girlfriend; she is providing a girlfriend experience but, of course, without the hassle of an actual long-term relationship.

Chelsea, we come to learn, does in fact experience some of those hassles herself in her relationship with Chris (Chris Santos), her live-in boyfriend. He is a personal trainer and, like Chelsea, he spends his days simulating something like friendship with his clients who pay handsomely (though not as handsomely as Chelsea’s clients) for his time.

Sasha Grey has thus far spent most of her career in porn but those looking for sex or even nudity will be disappointed. She is maybe visibly naked in one scene (and if you see the movie on TV, as I did, any naughty parts that might be visible on a movie screen are completely obscured by shadow). The nudity here is saved for the naked commerce that is the basis for almost every encounter in the movie.

One of the running jokes in the movie is that all almost everyone can talk about is the economy. The movie is set right before the November elections in 2008 and at several points her clients offer advice on what she should do with her money (gold, not stocks). They are also telling her (in ways both direct and subtle) that this arrangement may change as their fortunes change.

When the global economy isn’t at issue, some kind of personal one is. There are Chelsea’s relationships with her clients (some of which become more personal than others). There are her relationships with a financial manger and a Web site builder. There’s the “erotic critic” who offers to help raise her online profile and ranking if she gives him a freebie. There’s Chris’ varying business relationships with those who can help him grow his training business or kick start an athletic apparel business. We see him going to Vegas with one of his training clients, laughing it up while awkwardly navigating that strange position between “friend” and “staff.”

And then there is Chris and Chelsea’s “real” relationship — all full of rules and deals and compromises.

There isn’t a tsk-tsk message here so much as a “this is how it is and don’t fool yourself that life is anything different” message. Grey is a flat actress but that actually makes for an interesting performance. Just as the men project onto her character whatever they want, we could see in Chelsea whatever we believe she is underneath the couture and the blank expression — amoral addict of stuff, calculating businesswoman, naïve girl. Whoever you see, the movie gives us an engrossing little window on her life. B-

Rated R for sexual content, nudity and language. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by David Levien and Brian Koppelman, The Girlfriend Experience is an hour and 17 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Magnolia Pictures. It is available at least through Thursday, May 28, via cable on demand (see the “Magnolia Pictures”) option.