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Movie Review

The Girlfriend Experience

In 'Girlfriend,' everyone's a hustler

Porn star-turned-mainstream-actress Sasha Grey plays an escort to upscale New York City professionals in Steven Soderbergh's ''The Girlfriend Experience.'' Porn star-turned-mainstream-actress Sasha Grey plays an escort to upscale New York City professionals in Steven Soderbergh's ''The Girlfriend Experience.'' (Magnolia Pictures via Ap)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / May 22, 2009
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Fair warning: I had to see "The Girlfriend Experience" twice before its pieces settled into coherent shape. At first the movie seems as wayward and affectless as its main character, a high-priced Manhattan escort played by porn star Sasha Grey. From what we see here, the jury's still out on whether Grey can act in the traditionally accepted mainstream-movie manner, but that lack turns out to serve the film perfectly.

Her character, Chelsea, promises clients a "girlfriend experience" - companionship, conversation, studied affection, and, at the end of the evening, sex. The johns project onto her a dream lover unique to their specific fantasies: She's built up from the lowest common denominator of their collective desires. Of course she has to be a blank screen.

Director Steven Soderbergh's nervy, successful conceit is to place Chelsea within an extremely specific setting: New York City in October of 2008. The market is melting down. Barack Obama is on the rise. The strivers of Manhattan are chattering with panic.

And everyone's a striver. The dark joke of "The Girlfriend Experience" is that to be alive in early-21st-century America is to be a hustler, and to be a hustler is to be both maxed out and hooked on the dream. Not exactly a new idea (nor does it pretend to be), but the shoe fits. Chelsea's customers are upscale professional men - slick Euro financiers, neurotic screenwriters, everyone but Eliot Spitzer - and they talk to her of job pressures and economic woes. Whatever this movie is, it's not a turn-on; the sex, when we see it, feels perfunctory, as if these men don't want to admit they're actually paying for therapy.

Chelsea has a boyfriend, too: Chris (Chris Santos), a young, generically handsome gym trainer struggling to climb up to the next rung of success. We see him selling a line of clothing to a sports store, selling a gym package to a customer, selling his services to the manager of a chain of boutique workout centers. He doesn't mind Chelsea's line of work because, hey, everyone has to hawk themselves to get ahead, and he's the one getting the real girlfriend experience. Isn't he?

Soderbergh is intrigued by the business of sex and the illusory sex appeal of business. He dices and slices "The Girlfriend Experience" into brief, nonsequential shards - the film takes place over the course of a week, more or less, and we come at it from all sides. What could seem an empty stylistic exercise (and was, in the director's 2002 "Full Frontal") serves to bring a fresh urgency to the tale, ultimately granting the audience a wisdom and perspective the characters never possess.

In addition to her clients, Chelsea meets with her accountant, with a Web designer, with a journalist writing a story about her. They're each seeking a version of her that will pay their own bills. The journalist, in particular, isn't seeking sex but he still wants a "real" Chelsea; she parries his more personal questions not because she doesn't want to tell but because there's not all that much to say.

Ironically, the most honest person in the film is also the most despicable: a hulking, hyperarticulate Internet "escort critic" whose quid pro quo is a free tumble with Chelsea in exchange for a positive review. That this sleazeball is played by Glenn Kenny, a former movie critic for Premiere magazine, is the filmmaker's merry poke at Kenny's and my profession. Got it: We're whores, too. (Anyway, as a colleague and friend of Glenn's, I'm delighted to see him channel classic-movie swine like George Sanders and Sidney Greenstreet. The kid has potential.)

And at least the escort critic knows who he is. The sin of everybody else in "The Girlfriend Experience" isn't selling or buying sex but believing they're special - that emotional and financial (and political) market fluctuations won't get them in the end. Chelsea frets about a new escort on the scene who may be poaching her clients but finds emotional solace with a new customer; her boyfriend, meanwhile, is seduced into a Vegas weekend by a group of hedge fund managers with a time share and a private jet. Things seem to be looking up at last.

What this serene, uninflected, unforgiving movie gives us instead is the moment before the crash.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to www.boston.com/movienation.

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Written by: Brian Koppelman and David Levien

Starring: Sasha Grey, Chris Santos

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 80 minutes

Rated: R (sexual content, nudity, language)