Sasha Grey makes little of her call-girl character in Steven Soderbergh's "The Girlfriend Experience." Review by Seattle Times movie critic Moira Macdonald.

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How do you tell the difference between an unskilled actor’s flat performance and a skilled actor’s realistic performance of an utterly flat character? It can be tricky, but if the question gets raised, the acting’s probably to blame.

Adult-film star Sasha Grey makes her mainstream-movie debut in Steven Soderbergh’s “The Girlfriend Experience” as Chelsea, a Manhattan call girl working to expand her high-end client roster. She’s dark-eyed and lovely but completely deadpan; conversations with her athletic-trainer boyfriend (Chris Santos) feel no different from her autopilot chat with clients.

This is one of Soderbergh’s low-budget experimental projects, like 2005’s “Bubble”; he shot and edited the film himself (under his usual pseudonyms Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard) and filled it with stunt casting. Santos is an athletic trainer making his film debut; the role of a journalist is played by journalist Mark Jacobson; film critic Glenn Kenny (formerly of Premiere magazine) gleefully plays a skeezy fellow who calls himself The Erotic Connoisseur.

The result is a film that’s elegantly shot but very remote and often dull. It’s hard to imagine why Soderbergh, whose career swings happily from Hollywood blockbusters (the “Ocean’s Eleven” films, “Erin Brockovich”) to demanding art-house fare (“Che”), wanted to film this inert script, and why he chose Grey to bring the main character to life, aside from her symbolic value as a porn star.

We hear about Chelsea’s favored brands of lingerie, and see her as she negotiates improvements to her Web site, but we learn little about who she is and what compels her — she just seems perpetually bored, as was I. It’s a brief 77 minutes of vague, pretty blankness; a mere sketch of a character — and a movie.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or