The Girlfriend Experience is a film that never could have been made in the star system of Old Hollywood. The Hays Office would have forbidden it, first of all, but it never would have arrived on their desk for condemnation anyway. There was a line between Hollywood sex and real sex that you didn’t dare cross. It was a line that director Steven Soderbergh helped erode in his Palme D’Or winner, 1989’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, and a line that was officially buried and forgotten with Michael Winterbottom’s 2004 film 9 Songs and John Cameron Mitchell’s 2006 Shortbus.
Now, thanks to Soderbergh, we have a porn actress starring in a mainstream film from a bona fide award-winning, A-list director. That sound is Jack Warner and Lew Wasserman spinning in their graves.
With respect to adult thespians, the role is not a terrible stretch for Sasha Grey. She plays Chelsea, a $2,000-an-hour hooker who is looking for more from life. Not in the existential sense, of course. No, she wants to be better paid for her time and body, and to find a better relationship than she has with her $125-an-hour personal trainer boyfriend. At least she isn’t another hooker with a heart of gold.
The film’s jumbled timeline runs against the backdrop of the 2008 election and economic collapse, lingering on the business types who can afford her services freaking out at the thought of not being able to afford her services, while musing randomly on McCain, Obama and why gold is a better commodity than diamonds.
A few of these creeps offer to help Chelsea, but do nothing but inflict damage once they’ve gotten what they want. Case in point: A user-generated sex-website review of the Chelsea experience rips her by stating, “With her flat affect, lack of culture and utter refusal to engage, Chelsea couldn’t even dazzle the likes of Forrest Fucking Gump.” It’s a damaging review for Chelsea, but the problem is that it’s true about Grey herself, even more so than Chelsea. Grey is less convincing as her character than most porn stars are at faking orgasm.
While The Girlfriend Experience is not a good film by any stretch, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it as being, at the very least, worth the time to watch it. Clocking in at a paltry 77 minutes, it gets lost somewhere in the cracks between terrible and bearable. There is something undeniably compelling about watching Grey flounder around onscreen next to this host of creepy user-men in her attempt to reach the next plateau of her business while still trying to find real love at the same time.
It’s impossible to root for her, because her desires would be an absurd largesse bestowed on an undeserving person if she won them. (It’s akin to hoping Spitzer’s girl, Ashley Dupré, lands that record deal she’s always wanted.) Yet it is also impossible to wish failure upon her, since she only wants to succeed at her job. It’s all anyone wants, really.