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Schizopolis and the Chaos of American Suburban Living

One of the essential hurdles an artist encounters when making a piece of art is attaching a title that is able to reflect the theme or central atmosphere attempting to be expressed. In this case, Steven Soderbergh fully realizes the potential of an attention-grabbing title for his energetic and postmodern masterpiece Schizopolis (1996). This title reflects the duality of the film’s atmosphere, with the “Schiz” part reflecting the uncontrollable and frenetically digressive pacing, editing, and script of the film, while the “opolis” segment of the title is a stand-in for the metropolis, much like the town in which the Scientology-esque leader runs an office building with a rigid power structure.

Even the intro of the film is just as attention-grabbing as its own title, as the presenter of the film (played by director Soderbergh, along with two other central characters in the film) states to the audience that “This is the most important picture that you’ll ever attend…” and that any confusion felt by the audience is their own fault, and not the fault of the film itself. The sardonic nature of the presenter’s speech fully achieves the postmodern style of humor to which the film is striving by taunting the potential audience with an inflated ego and sense of grandeur.

After this tone-setting intro, Fletcher Munson, one of the main characters of the film played by Soderbergh, is seen driving around in hyperspeed camera footage while his voiceover discusses feelings of uncertainty. Suddenly, the film then shows an older man wearing a shirt with the film’s title, despite being nude from the waist down, walking toward the camera. He smiles, then runs away as two men chase him. Who is he? Why is he being chased? Why is he wearing no pants or underwear? This is just one of a variety of turbulent sequences that are left unexplained and often interrupt the central plot of the film.

Munsen works at a desk job in an office building controlled by T. Azimuth Schwitters (Mike Malone), the leader of a philosophy known as Eventualism that is vague within the film and serves as a parody of both Scientology and its founder, L. Ron Hubbard. When one of Fletcher’s coworkers dies of a heart attack after poor health characteristics like unhealthy eating and insomniac tendencies, which Fletcher himself is experiencing, Fletcher is suddenly given the task of writing a speech for Schwitters by his manager and struggles to overcome writer’s block, which becomes the film’s main journey. This sequence of events is consistently intercut with montage scenes of the characters engaging in these actions with exaggerated sound effects and heavy filters over the footage, creating a purposefully jarring comedic tone over the typically straightforward plot. These visual and audio quirks also aid in underscoring the drab and sterile nature of the office workplace and the suburban atmosphere seen throughout the movie.

Fletcher Munsen (Steven Soderbergh) looks in a mirror, making faces at himself

Where future films in Soderbergh’s filmography would use large ensemble casts to tell a story through multiple perspectives, such as Traffic (2000) or Contagion (2011), that audience-appealing style of name recognition and casting is fully absent here with no credited roles (there are no end credits at the film’s conclusion, just a copyright frame). Most of the acting roles that are not played by Soderbergh himself are played by character actors. This allows the audience to be fully engaged in the eccentric dialogue of the film, as Munsen communicates in the most simplistic manner (saying “generic greeting” when entering his home), as do others to cut to the gist of a situation (i.e. the priest at his coworker’s funeral ending the eulogy with “Let’s forget the blah blah blah, and go have ourselves a drink. Amen”).

While Munsen deals with trying to create a speech and finding a possible mole in his workplace environment, an exterminator named Elmo Oxygen (David Jensen) goes around houses in the suburban communities having affairs with married women while speaking in code (“Nose army. Dog clone landmine”). This subplot eventually turns into a statement on artistic integrity when a film crew decides to record various segments with Elmo, offering to pay him in order to be part of their taped segments. Elmo eventually leaves when he feels his creativity being stifled by the film crew and leaves unexpectedly.

Elmo Oxygen (David Jensen) smiles at someone off-camera

However, a second main character named Dr. Jeffery Korchek (also Soderbergh) is introduced into the film. We see him performing his job as a dentist while also sleeping with his female patients. Eventually, he becomes involved with Munsen’s wife (Betsy Brantley), previously seen leaving the house under the guise of watching a movie with a friend; she’s more attracted to the more emotionally expressive Korchek than to the emotionally closed-off Munsen. During this perspective change, Korchek is suddenly involved with criminals threatening to kill him if he doesn’t get the money that Korchek’s brother owes them.

Furthermore, Korchek removes any sense of romantic feelings toward Munsen’s wife when he has a new patient, named in the film as Attractive Woman No. 2 (also Brantley), and writes a letter of affection that becomes increasingly sexually inappropriate with embarrassingly crude sexual remarks. This then leads to a hilarious karmic justice when Attractive Woman No. 2’s legal team addresses Korchek in the letter by talking directly to the camera as his heinous writings are emphasized again for comedic effect, resulting in his being successfully sued for sexual harassment.

The karmic payback continues, as after losing possible romance, money, and reputation over his letter, he is then killed by the criminal man from earlier in the film after being unable to give him the owed money; Soderberg unceremoniously kills off this character in a comedic fashion. The introduction and conclusion of Korchek’s subplot is the highlight of the film, as it conveys that a man in a more well-respected career field and with a greater sense of control over his life can quickly lose it all after a moment of poor judgment. Moreover, the drastic chain of events resulting from Korcheck’s lustful desires further underscores the dichotomy between mundane lifestyles in the suburbs and characters’ subsequently chaotic actions.

The film’s third act then focuses on Munsen’s wife as we view previous events entirely through her eyes and ears. All of a sudden, Munsen and Korchek’s dialogue is dubbed in foreign languages (Japanese and later French for Munsen, then Italian for Korchek), while she responds in her usual English. Just as previous scenes add odd intricacies and mannerisms to completely alter the typical domestic drama plot seen in countless films, this new take on previously viewed scenes allows a sense of vitality where other suburban dramas lack it. Also, when Munsen’s dialog changes from Japanese to French after his wife leaves Korchek and begins to reconcile their relationship, the audience realizes that Munsen has changed on a purely verbal level through simple dubbing changes.

And after Munsen improves his romantic relationship and finishes a great speech for Schwitters, we wait for the emotional payoff of his speech to the Eventualism audience. Just as expectations were suddenly altered by random events, Schwitters is shot by Elmo Oxygen, and the speech isn’t read at all.

After a scene in an interrogation room where Elmo flashes himself to the horror of his interrogators, we hear Munsen narrate that his relationship ultimately fails with his wife and that he is later frozen in ice after drunkenly walking into the snow one night. The presenter from the beginning of the film then holds a Q&A session with an unheard audience, answering, “Yes”, ” Yes”, and “Footlong Veggie on Wheat” before lowering the curtains. The aforementioned copyright frame flashes as the screen goes dark.

This matter-of-fact ending mixes well with the ideals of the film, as any and all preconceived notions of cause and effect are unfulfilled. Life in a structured environment like a business space or residential area can reveal and generate oddities just like anywhere else. If Soderbergh is telling us anything, it’s to leave any preconceived notions of cause and effect when entering the wonderful and exciting world of Schizopolis (1996)!

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