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By Rick Kisonak | June 17, 2009

As I watched Steven Soderbergh’s latest, I couldn’t help thinking back to John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” for a variety of reasons. This movie by an A list director reached the marketplace with exceptional speed and involved little fussiness with regard to traditional industry preparation and antecedents. Lennon recorded the song the day he composed it and had it in record stores less than a week and a half later. “I wrote it for breakfast, recorded it for lunch and we’re putting it out for dinner,” he joked.

“The Girlfriend Experience” is the product of a similarly accelerated mind-to-marketplace process. The shape-shifting director (“Traffic,” “Bubble,” “Oceans Eleven-Thirteen”) shot the film over a few weeks last fall on a shoestring using a portable high-definition video camera working with a primarily nonprofessional cast and has had it available through video on demand since early this spring. By motion picture standards, that’s about as instant as it gets.

Many audience members may experience an occasionally disorienting sense that the movie must have been made by time traveling auteurs from another planet. This is due to the fact that it’s set during the weeks before the 2008 presidential election which, I don’t know about you, but feels practically like yesterday to me. Characters, for the most part, have two things on their minds: politics and the economic meltdown, both of which are ironic considering this is a film about a high end call girl and her customers.

The central character is a 21-year-old Manhattan escort who is paid $2000 per hour for the illusion of intimacy. By which I don’t mean simply sex but companionship, attentiveness, conversation, and canoodling – i.e., the girlfriend experience. Her name is Chelsea and she is played by real life porn star Sasha Grey.

The picture chronicles approximately a week in her life. Throughout the opening sequence, during which she and a date take in a showing of Man on Wire, discuss it over dinner at a chic restaurant and then retire to a homey hotel room to make out, drink wine and discuss the economy, we take it as given the two are a couple. It isn’t until a thick envelope of cash changes hands the next morning that we realize business has been conducted, that her affection was an act.

In the course of the film we look on as Chelsea meets with all manner of client. Many are needy or neurotic (I’m pretty sure a high powered financial trader sports a giant diaper in one scene). All are rich and frantically scrambling to stay that way. Two other men figure prominently. One is a journalist interviewing her for a piece on the GFE phenomenon (he’s played by New York magazine writer Mark Jacobson). The other is her live-in boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), a gym trainer who’s been with her for 18 months and pretends her job doesn’t bother him.

This is a character study more than a story in the traditional sense. To the extent there’s a narrative arc at all, it concerns the gradual realization on the part of the cute, confident business woman that she might not be quite as in control of her world as she’d heretofore believed. A younger woman is cutting into her market share. Complications arise when she gives a relationship with a client the chance to become something more. Her livelihood is threatened as the result of an unfortunate interaction with a sleazeball who writes “reviews” of New York City prostitutes.

For reasons which will become obvious, this is my favorite part of the film. Former Premiere movie critic Glenn Kenny creates this gloriously slimy Sidney Greenstreet-meets Larry Flynt sort of creep who presides over a web site called The Erotic Connoisseur. Chelsea is promised a rave in exchange for a freebie, something goes horribly wrong and she is viscously panned. Brilliant concept, tremendously entertaining performance.

Working with the unlikely team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien (who wrote the latest Oceans sequel), Soderbergh has dashed off a provocative verite comment on a culture in which everything is for sale and nothing is safe from downturn. Grey’s character learns a thing or two about karma the hard way as well. The commodity of youth, for example, maintains its market value for only so long, and cynically living life as though human feelings are for saps can come back to bite you the day you finally feel like being human.

Her beauty, independence, and stock portfolio notwithstanding, Chelsea’s tale is a timely, tragic one told with typical Soderbergh finesse, a sly, sleek merger of sex, lies and hi def video.

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