Set just prior to the 2008 presidential election, amidst the widespread panic of economic collapse, director Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience would like to suggest that basically we’re all whores. This is not a judgment — at least not as it pertains to the main character, Chelsea, a high-end Manhattan sex worker played by the porn brand known as Sasha Grey. What’s that? We shouldn’t talk about her like that because she’s actually a person, you say? Well, you wouldn’t know it from this movie — certainly not any more than you would from other Grey efforts, like Face Invaders 4.
That’s the thing about wanting to be taken seriously: It’s so serious. And Grey’s humorlessness is especially troublesome. There’s a pretense of realism here, or at least a high-minded variation on Reality TV, and it matters for titillation’s sake that we know she’s an authentic porn star. The way we know is that she has that familiar hard look. That dead-inside look. Thus the usual embarrassment from bearing witness to bad acting is compounded by a gnawing fear of complicity in some kind of exploitation.
Not that Soderbergh intends to investigate this. He’ll vaguely condescend to an audience, sure, but direct accusations seem so, well, direct. He still wants our approval, wants us to think he’s smart and cool. Fine, but maybe his Che should have been called “The Revolutionary Experience,” so this could be “Grey: The Roadshow.”
In fact, the movie’s title refers to what is supposed to be the unique service Chelsea provides. Her clients get more than just an evening’s company and then sex: They get dates, and small talk, and hanging out. She lets them kiss her, and listens to whatever might be troubling them. Usually what’s troubling them is money. Then they give her some.
Another alternative: “The Therapist with Benefits Experience.”
Or, hell, maybe it is like having a girlfriend — except without all the second-guessing about compatibility, the uneasy Facebook scrutiny, the social insulation of friendliness with other couples, the meeting and coming to terms with family, the actual emotional vulnerability and mutual trust and respect and maybe even love. That must be worth good money, right? Writers David Levien and Brian Koppelman, who also gave us Rounders and Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 13, seem to like long-odds gambles.
One guy (Chris Santos), a freelance personal trainer, actually has Chelsea for a girlfriend, and lives with her, and tolerates her vocation — at least until he doesn’t. Problems arise when she finds herself wanting one client in particular to whisk her away for a weekend in the country. “We clicked; there was something there,” she tells her boyfriend, and seems surprised when he gets possessive and cynical in response.
But by now we’ve already heard Chelsea herself say: “If they wanted you to be yourself, they wouldn’t be paying you.” As is his wont, Soderbergh makes a point here of nonlinear narrative structure; perhaps the idea is to elucidate Chelsea’s romantic disillusionment by backtracking through it. Even so, cutting up and rearranging her arc only underscores how implausible it was to begin with.
Similarly, just because the movie is about transactional relationships doesn’t mean it can be superficial and do without real human chemistry. Just because it makes a winking acknowledgment of its star’s “flat affect” doesn’t mean that’s OK. Yep: whores, all of us, and media whoring is our favorite kind.