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Produced & Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Produced by
Joshua Blum, Amy Hobby, Kathie Russo & Soderbergh
Released by IFC Films
USA. 89 min. Not Rated

Steven Soderbergh once again employs the serial monologist Spalding Gray as his muse, this time posthumously. Assembled from hundreds of hours of interviews and performances provided by Gray’s widow, Kathie Russo, the writer/actor tells a kind of meta-life story between the lines of his signature performances. Gray’s shtick, his “cottage industry,” as he refers to it, is storytelling. For decades, he performed half-improvised monologues on stage from behind a desk describing hilarious and insightful true episodes from his life (although he admits he’s not sure exactly how much fictionalizing went on). In this unique biography, an equally compelling overall narrative is created, somehow allowing us to understand Gray as a person even more than from any one of his performances.

He’s been filmed before, most notably in Jonathan Demme’s Swimming to Cambodia (1987) and Soderbergh’s Gray’s Anatomy (1996). In 2004, he committed suicide, drowning in New York City’s East River after a devastating bout of depression stemming from injuries sustained in a serious car accident several years prior. He’s now survived through Soderbergh’s tasteful and honest tribute. Gray may have insisted on telling stories about himself, but where he succeeded best was also in conveying something greater about the human condition. His unique performances make perfect material for Soderbergh’s trademark eclecticism, allowing the filmmaker, now for a second time, to explore the idea of storytelling through monologues.

Gray speaks throughout the entire film, and only very rarely do we hear from anyone else. His father, over the course of several interviews, provides a few gems, but for the most part Spalding Gray (“Spud,” as he loves to point out, is his lifelong nickname) delivers his one-man show. A smart editing strategy builds a biographical narrative out of the footage as the film begins mostly with performances by a younger Gray and deftly proceeds to his latter years. Gray emerges as a brutally honest critic, however gentle, of everyone and everything, including himself.

His mother’s own suicide, his predisposition for depression (as mentioned in several of his works), and his struggle to be at ease with his own identity are clearly the focus here. This is no mere survey of Gray’s life and career—it’s a far more complex piece of filmmaking. The final song, written and performed by Gray’s son, Forrest, plays over the credits to home movies of his father’s early life, and though clearly a sharp turn toward sentimentality, it’s still effective at providing a very human ending for a very human film. Here’s a fitting tribute to a man who not only deserved it, but would also have truly appreciated it. Michael Lee
December 10, 2010



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