Richard Roeper Blog

Porn actress acts with non-actors in real movie.

Sasha Grey is a porn actress. She is short. She is cute. I’d never heard of her until she was cast in “The Girlfriend Experience,” which is not a porn film at all but a small-budget project from Steven Soderbergh, who loves to alternate between ambitious films with big stars, and experimental works shot for a million bucks or so.

If you turn off the SafeSearch mode on Google and type in “Sasha Grey,” you will see this young woman engaging in all manner of hardcore fare. It’s not particularly sexy, but it’s more than a little depressing. I’m not Mister Anti-Porn Crusader, but you watch even a minute of this stuff and you think: what happened to this girl that made her want to do THIS at the age of 18? Grey considers herself something of an intellectual. She says her hardcore porn scenes are “performance art.” No, they’re hardcore porn scenes. There ain’t an ounce of art in the room my dear.

In “The Girlfriend Experience,” Gray plays Chelsea, a fashion-conscious, emotionally detached sex escort in New York City in the fall of 2008, when everyone was talking about the election and the economy. (Now we just talk about the economy.) At first I thought the film was going to be a thinly veiled take on Eliot Spitzer and Ashley Dupre. Gray bears a slight resemblance to the briefly famous escort, and in some early scenes in the film, we see her recording her mundane thoughts and doing an interview with a journalist.

But “The Girlfriend Experience” isn’t about plot. Shot digitally and running for just 77 minutes, it’s a rambling, slice-of-life docudrama that jumps back and forth within a brief time period as get to know the escort, her live-in boyfriend and about a half-dozen of her clients. Although the movie is about a sexual escort and it features a porn star, Grey is clothed for nearly all of the film, and the sex scenes aren’t much raunchier than the love scene in “Wolverine.” I suppose that’s one of the reasons Soderbergh was intrigued with casting Grey: you can see her on the Internet doing everything imaginable (and some things you’d probably never imagine), but here you see her—-or at least the character she’s playing—when she’s NOT ‘on the job.’ Anyone with a stack of cash can have their way with the escort, but only a select few ever get to see what she’s like when the workday is done.

All of Grey’s co-stars are non-actors. The film critic Glenn Kenny is hilarious as a skeezeball who writes reviews of escorts for an influential web site. A journalist plays a journalist. A personal trainer plays a personal trainer. And so on. The end result is a film that often seems like a documentary—and sometimes plays like a poorly acted film shot on a very low budget.

As for Ms. Grey: she is not a good actress. She photographs well. She does a decent enough job of hitting the on/off switch in her eyes when she’s feigning interest in a man—and when she’s tired of his narcissistic ramblings. (Like almost all johns in the movies, these guys have at least as much interest in talking about themselves as they have in the sexual act itself. Some don’t even consummate with Chelsea. It’s the old cliche about the man who pays a woman for her time so she can give him oral, but also because she HAS to listen to him go on and on about his problems at work, etc. She doesn’t have the girlfriend/wife option of saying, “Will you PLEASE just shut up!”) But her line readings are flat, and a pivotal scene in which she has to display authentic emotion rings false, especially because it’s shot mostly from a distance, as if Soderbergh knew Grey couldn’t handle too many close-ups on her face. Faking an orgasm onscreen is one thing; conveying true heartbreak is something else.

I like most of Soderbergh’s experimental journeys. I’d rather experience something uneven but ambitious such as “The Girlfriend Experience” than sit through another trite rom-com or standard-issue actioner. But I doubt this is the vehicle that will enable Sasha Grey to make the leap from porn star/pop culture novelty to genuine mainstream actress.

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