(director: Steven Soderbergh; screenwriters: Brian Koppelman/David Levien; cinematographer: Peter Andrews (aka; Soderbergh); editor: Mary Ann Bernard; music: Ross Godfrey; cast: Sasha Grey (Chelsea/Christine), Chris Santos (Chris), Philip Eytan (Philip), Glenn Kenny (Erotic Connoisseur), Timothy Davis (Tim), David Levien (David), Mark Jacobson (Interviewer); Runtime: 77; MPAA Rating: R; producer: Gregory Jacobs; Magnolia Pictures; 2009)

“Seems more like a sociologist’s case study than anything dramatic.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Steven Soderbergh (“Kafka”/”King of the Hill”/”Out of Sight”) helms this low budget slice of life drama that’s shot on a portable high-definition video camera with a mostly nonprofessional cast (a 21-year-old porn star is the only professional). This is Soderbergh’s follow-up to “Che.” It has some interesting reflections, but is uneven, lacking in gravitas and never gets to anything emotionally meaningful. Writers Brian Koppelman and David Levien leave it plotless, cold and superficial, as it goes from one vignette to another that seems more like a sociologist’s case study than anything dramatic.

“The Girlfriend Experience” takes place over five days in October, leading up to the 2008 presidential election and during the economic collapse. It covers in that time period the business-like orderly life of Manhattan call girl Chelsea (Sasha Grey, adult film star in her mainstream film debut). The pretty Chelsea offers good companionship as the ideal girlfriend to her mild-mannered wealthy clientele, who she is either a good listener, a shrink or solicitous to along with providing sex. The middle-aged men fork over $2,000 an hour for her services. Her devoted boyfriend, professional trainer (Chris Santos, a real-life trainer), is accepting of her career moves and the yuppie lovers live together in a posh loft for the last year and a half by abiding with a few simple rules (she can’t go away to vacation with clients, is one strict rule).

The self-assured Chelsea prides herself as the sophisticated hooker, who offers an intimate relationship with her clients. We see her developing her own website to increase her business and interacting with a number of clients, as she keeps a journal of her sessions as to what outfit she wore, talked about, what kind of sex act was performed and if they dined out. With one client she sees the movie Man On Wire, with another she dines at the upscale Nobu, another advises she invest in gold as the stock market collapses, and all the men seem to be worriedly tuned into the capitalist game as much as the enterprising ambitious escort lady.

The film’s big moment of crisis is brought about when Chelsea finds herself attracted to one of her latest clients (David Levien, film’s cowriter). He’s a married screenwriter who lives in LA. Chelsea breaks one of her cardinal rules with Chris and goes away for the weekend with the client, and then discovers her potential new lover/client is gutless and she might not be as special as she thinks she is.

Over the course of the film, Chelsea is interviewed by a probing journalist (played by real-life New York magazine journalist Mark Jacobson), trying to get to the inner Chelsea and, she also visits “The Erotic Connoisseur” (Glenn Kenny, film critic), a low-life creepy blogger who reviews escort services and when she refuses a freebie he gets revenge by giving her sexual performance a damaging bad review on his site.

The film is more depressing than erotic (where everything seems to be for sale–from country to one’s body) and I have no idea how authentic it is, as all the characters seem superficial (which might really be authentic). The bleak film ends on a disheartening opaque note. When I tried to recall it an hour after seeing it, I found I already forgot most of it (sort of like some of my GF experiences when growing up).

REVIEWED ON 10/22/2009 GRADE: B-