Steven Soderbergh’s career comes full circle with Full Frontal. In this freewheeling, formally inventive ensemble comedy-drama, shot in 18 days on a $2 million budget, the filmmaker reclaims the artistic freedom of his critically touted if rather overrated 1989 feature debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. In between, he’s made offbeat indies (Kafka, King of the Hill, The Limey), an experimental movie (Schizopolis), a performance film (Gray’s Anatomy), and actor-driven studio projects (Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic). Last year, he bottomed out with Ocean’s Eleven, an impersonal, soporific, star-packed remake of the self-indulgent Rat Pack heist picture. Full Frontal appears to be Soderbergh’s atonement for his capitulation to Hollywood hackwork, filled with the cinematic vigor absent from that misfire.

Admittedly, Full Frontal’s content isn’t notably fresh. Anyone familiar with Godard’s Contempt or Truffaut’s Day for Night will recognize the source of screenwriter Coleman Hough’s film-within-a-film conceit. But Full Frontal’s tricky interweaving of illusion and reality has been enlivened by Soderbergh’s risk-taking direction. He attacked the project with the zeal and economy of a student filmmaker, committing the cast and crew to a set of 10 rules. Among them, the actors were held responsible for their own wardrobes, makeup, transportation, and meals, and were required to submit to on-camera interviews about the roles they played and the other characters, intended for possible inclusion in the final cut. Soderbergh himself adopted austere, Dogmalike restraints, restricting shooting to existing locations using natural lighting. Clearly, everyone obeyed his final directive: “You will have fun whether you want to or not.”

Full Frontal’s plot unfolds in Los Angeles during a 24-hour period, climaxing with the 40th-birthday party of movie producer Gus (David Duchovny). Carl (David Hyde Pierce), an insecure would-be screenwriter, is fired from his journalism job and faces the imminent collapse of his marriage. His restless wife, Lee (Catherine Keener), a human-resources executive, is having an affair with television actor Calvin (Blair Underwood), who’s been cast as Nicholas, the leading man’s sidekick in Gus’ current production, Rendezvous. In that movie, Nicholas is pursued by Catherine, an interviewer portrayed by actress Francesca (Julia Roberts). Meanwhile, Lee’s sister Linda (Mary McCormack), a hotel masseuse, has a professional encounter with Gus and anticipates an assignation with a man she’s met in an Internet chat room. Arty (Enrico Colantoni), the object of Linda’s cybercrush, is a theater director staging a revisionist play about Hitler (impersonated by Nicky Katt).

That stripped-down summary of poet-playwright Hough’s screenplay should give you some idea of the challenge of unscrambling Full Frontal, which opens with the bogus credits of Rendezvous rather than those for the film we’re actually watching. After several movie-within-a-movie scenes set in Manhattan and photographed in crisp 35 mm, Soderbergh shifts to the framing story, shot on digital video and processed to yield a panoply of textures and tones. Serving as his own cinematographer under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, the director revels in this opportunity to explore filmic technique, filtering out colors to create nearly abstract monochromatic images and excising frames within a single shot, resulting in what could be dubbed optical percussion.

Similarly, the performers embrace their chance to improvise within a structured format. Pierce transcends the sitcomish personae with which he’s usually saddled, creating a character simultaneously amusing and affecting. Roberts resourcefully shades her contrasting roles: Trapped in an unflattering dark hairpiece, she’s uncharacteristically remote and subdued as Rendezvous’ Catherine, but when she doffs the wig to reveal Francesca’s cascade of blond hair, she becomes warmly accessible. And McCormack is especially impressive, bringing a mute, Kim Novak-like stolidity to the lovelorn Linda.

Soderbergh sprinkles the film with inside jokes: Filmmaker David Fincher turns up in Rendezvous directing a movie-within-a-movie-within-a-movie starring an unbilled Brad Pitt in a part reminiscent of the one he played in Fincher’s Seven. Terence Stamp makes several wordless cameos, dressed as he was for the title role in Soderbergh’s The Limey. Soderbergh himself is glimpsed directing a scene, his face concealed from the audience by a black matte.

It takes at least two viewings to assemble the pieces of Full Frontal’s mosaic narrative, and it probably takes at least two more to determine whether the movie adds up to the sum of its intriguing parts. But its ingenious formal strategies, narrative twists, and sly wit consistently prevent us from anticipating what will happen next, even in the film’s final reel, when the characters’ romantic conflicts are glibly resolved. At this point, we’re encouraged to assume that the filmmaker has copped out, cravenly capping an unconventional project with a string of implausible happy endings. Then, in a startling coup de cinema that I wouldn’t dream of revealing, Soderbergh pulls the rug out from under us, exposing what we have accepted as his film’s realistic level as yet another instance of illusionism. Surprises like this are all too rare in contemporary American cinema—which makes Full Frontal an experience to savor. CP