The current economic freefall started right around the time Steven Soderbergh was shooting The Girlfriend Experience, and though it wouldn’t be quite right to call it a “happy accident,” his artful glimpse at the business of sex is made all the richer for it. After all, a night with Chelsea, a high-priced escort played by real-life porn star Sasha Grey, represents the sort of conspicuous consumption that’s now dying out as fast as the $1,000 gold-flecked ice-cream sundae. Not many filmmakers have the ability to adapt on the fly like that—the film is a small digital project, Soderbergh’s second for Magnolia after 2005’s Bubble, which probably aided his flexibility—and it adds another layer to Soderbergh’s cool dissection of a self-employed dream girl with a mind like an abacus.
The voiceover narration itemizes Chelsea’s material luxuries as if she was in a Bret Easton Ellis novel—the designer-brand dresses and purses, the swank restaurants and bars—and she herself is the ultimate accessory, draped over a man’s arm for $2,000/hour. Sex is certainly part of the job, but “the girlfriend experience” she offers plays to more subtle skills, and she prepares herself scrupulously to morph into the companion her clients desire. At the same time, she tries to keep her live-in boyfriend (Chris Santos) happy, though the task of compartmentalizing her work and her love life isn’t easy. When a new client (Peter Zizzo) suggests the possibility of a major change in her life, Chelsea considers taking a grand and perhaps foolhardy leap of faith.
There isn’t much to Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s script—or more likely, Soderbergh hashed it up beyond recognition in the editing room, much as he did with Lem Dobbs’ script for The Limey. Though The Girlfriend Experience doesn’t achieve the same depth—Grey, for one, can’t hope to match Terence Stamp or Peter Fonda for gravitas—its seductive achronology sketches five days in its heroine’s life with similar aplomb. The thinking behind Grey’s casting, with its obvious sex-industry connections, lends the film a degree of verisimilitude, but it really pays off in a cameo by film critic Glenn Kenny, who brings a hilariously sleazy theatricality to the role of an “escort critic” who expects graft for his reviews. Their shadow economy operates a lot like the one in collapse: If you want to stay in business, you have to keep greasing the wheel.