Although the film does not have a linear plot, a skeletal structure exists, telling the same story from three different perspectives divided into three acts. At the beginning of the film, Soderbergh speaks to the audience in a style meant to evoke Cecil B. DeMille's introduction to The Ten Commandments. He states, "In the event that you find certain sequences or ideas confusing, please bear in mind that this is your fault, not ours. You will need to see the picture again and again until you understand everything."
The film's main character is Fletcher Munson (played by Soderbergh), an office employee working under Theodore Azimuth Schwitters. Schwitters is the leader of a self-help company/religion/lifestyle known as Eventualism, a clear reference to L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. The audience sees the events unfold in the opening act through Fletcher's point of view.
Fletcher sees the underlying meaning in everything, paying more attention to what is meant, rather than what is said. As he progresses through his day the audience sees the lack of attention he is paying to the people around him, degrading to the point where he comes home for dinner and he and his wife illustrate their lack of communication by simply describing what they are saying.Fletcher:
Generic greeting returned.
Overly dramatic statement regarding upcoming meal.
Oooh, false reaction indicating hunger and excitement!
When Fletcher's co-worker Lester Richards (a reference to Soderbergh's idol and mentor, filmmaker Richard Lester) unexpectedly dies while getting pictures developed at the drugstore, Fletcher must take his job as speechwriter for Schwitters. His personal life suffers because of his work, and he becomes even more detached from his wife, who is trying to cope by having an affair.
Meanwhile, Elmo Oxygen, a local exterminator, spends much of his time going from house to house, bedding the bored housewives of the men in the community who work for Schwitters (including Richards' widow). In each house he takes pictures of his genitals using various cameras he finds on tables and in cabinets. Elmo and the women speak in a nonsensical code that, for all its complexity, clearly conveys amorous intent:Housewife:
(answering the door seductively) Arsenal. Nose army.
(looking to see that they're alone) Nose army. Beef diaper?
(Inviting him in) Nomenclature.
As Elmo makes his rounds, he is followed by a couple in an SUV.
Fletcher finishes this act in a parking lot. Finding that his key will not work in his car door, he looks around and finds that his actual car (parked only two spots away) is an exact match for the one he is trying to get into. He goes to enter his own car when he sees a man who is his exact double climb into the car he himself just tried to enter. Fletcher follows his doppelganger home, closes his eyes, and becomes this mystery man.
Although the second act begins as a direct transition from the first, its events actually unfold simultaneously with the previous act.
The second act follows Fletcher's doppelganger, one Dr. Jeffrey Korchek. Korchek is a conservative dentist who has been mentioned by one or two smaller characters in the first act. He is always in a jogging suit, although he only jogs from his car to the door of wherever he is going. He is also quite a fan of Muzak.
Korchek, it turns out, is the mystery man that Fletcher's wife has been having an affair with, causing Fletcher/Korchek to comment, "Oh my god. I'm having an affair with my wife!"
Despite being with, essentially, the same man, Mrs. Munson seems to feel comfortable with Dr. Korchek. The communication is better and she feels needed and wanted. Korchek suggests she leave Fletcher and move in with him.
The next day, Korchek has breakfast with his heroin-addicted brother, who first asks to stay with Korchek, and then to borrow money. Korchek says he can't help, and that his brother should not be dealing with drug dealers anyway. The brother disagrees, and Korchek goes to work. Once there, he meets Attractive Woman Number 2 (played by the same actress as Mrs. Munson). Korchek falls instantly in love with her and writes a letter professing his love."Dear attractive woman number 2, only once in my life have I responded to a person the way I've responded to you, but I've forgotten when it was or even if it was in fact me that responded. I may not know much, but I know that the wind sings your name endlessly, although with a slight lisp that makes it difficult to understand if I'm standing near an air conditioner. I know that your hair sits atop your head as though it could sit nowhere else. I know that your figure would make a sculptor cast aside his tools, injuring his assistant who was looking out the window instead of paying attention. I know that your lips are as full as that sexy French model that I desperately want to fuck. I know that if for an instant I could have you lie next to me, or on top of me, or sit on me, or stand over me and shake, then I would be the happiest man in my pants. I know all of this, and yet you do not know me. Change your life; accept my love. Or, at least let me pay you to accept it."
He leaves this note on her door and goes home. Once there, he sees a car parked in the driveway. It is Mrs. Munson, who has considered the offer and has left Fletcher. Korchek has to admit that he has fallen in love with someone else. Mrs. Munson is justifiably upset, and leaves.
The next day Korchek gets to work and is confronted by a large man who says "Your brother, eight hours, fifteen thousand dollars." In fact, almost all of this man's dialog consists of some combination of these three commands. Korchek goes into the office and finds a registered letter from a law firm representing Attractive Woman Number 2, who is filing a sexual harassment suit against Dr. Korchek.
The day goes from bad to worse when it is revealed that Korchek's brother has stolen all of his money. Broke, tired, loveless and depressed, Korchek leaves work, only to find that the large man's time limit has elapsed. Korchek is shot dead.
During this act, the couple following Elmo in the SUV approaches him to give up playing his role in the film (thus breaking the fourth wall) in order to become a star in his own action show. Contrary to the experience of the other characters, Elmo's storyline seems to move forward in time continuously, without rewinding/repeating between acts.
The final act is seen through the perspective of Mrs. Munson. We move through the storyline again and see her experience with Fletcher's growing disaffection, Dr. Korchek's affection, and the day-to-day routine of being a mom. The action follows roughly the same events, except that Fletcher and his doppelganger speak Japanese, Italian or French, with the cultural stereotype of each nationality reflecting Mrs Munson's perception of the men. This is in a similar vein to the "generic greetings" of the earlier act.
Once she leaves Korchek, she makes a tired reconciliation with Fletcher and they go home together. Fletcher finishes Schwitters' speech and all seems to be well.
The day of the speech, Schwitters mounts the podium and prepares to give the oration which is, by all accounts, quite good. After acknowledging applause with a "Thank you," Elmo, who has been missing for this entire act, bursts into the auditorium and shoots Schwitters in the shoulder. Schwitters survives and Elmo is arrested. After nonsensical ranting, repeating "nose army" again and again, Elmo exposes his crotch during a police interrogation. The police recoil and shield their eyes, implying that Lester Richards may have died the same way at beginning of the film after seeing photos of Elmo at the drugstore.
The movie ends with a pair of monologues. First, Munson is seen in a shopping mall narrating the events of the rest of his life — his wife will leave him in five years; in eight years, he will drunkenly collapse and fall asleep in a snowbank after a wedding reception in Alaska and be discovered and successfully thawed the following spring. Then, Soderbergh returns in front of a blank movie screen and asks if there are any questions. After offering several responses ("Yes." "Yes." "Foot-long veggie on wheat." "Thank you."), he walks offstage as the camera pulls back to reveal he's been talking to an empty auditorium.
The film has no beginning or end credits. A man clad only in a black T-shirt appears at the beginning and conclusion of the film, shown to be chased by men in white coats over a green field. When he is first seen, the T-shirt sports the title of the film; in his later appearance, it says "The End." There is a single frame of copyright information at the end of the film.Steven Soderbergh as Fletcher Munson / Dr. Jeffrey Korchek
Betsy Brantley as Mrs. Munson / Attractive Woman #2
David Jensen as Elmo Oxygen
Mike Malone as T. Azimuth Schwitters
Eddie Jemison as Nameless Numberhead Man
Scott Allen as Right-Hand Man
Katherine LaNasa as Attractive Woman #1
Mary Soderbergh as Document Delivery Woman
Trip Hamilton as Dr. Korchek's Brother
Ann Hamilton as Schwitters' Wife
Rodger Kamenetz as Cardiologist
Schizopolis was shot over a period of nine months, beginning in March 1995, on a budget of only $250,000. Due to Soderbergh's desire to keep the film simple, many people had multiple duties (i.e. David Jensen played Elmo Oxygen as well as being the casting director and key grip) and many friends and relatives were hired in various capacities. Betsy Brantley, who plays Mrs. Munson, is Steven Soderbergh's ex-wife in real-life. Soderbergh himself took the lead role, instead of hiring a professional actor, in part because, as he said, "There was just nobody I knew that I could make that demand of - come and work for free for nine months whenever I feel like it in Baton Rouge!"
Soderbergh began filming with no script. He simply wrote lines prior to shooting each scene and allowed improvisation as well.
Several interpretations have been suggested, claiming that the film is exploring certain themes. One such theme is lack of communication: Munson and his wife only engage in templates of speech, such as "Generic greeting!" and "Generic greeting returned!" Another theme is the idea of social restraint versus internal thought: at Lester Richards' funeral, the priest begins the eulogy: "Lester Richards is dead, and aren't you glad it wasn't you?" Interpretations differ greatly, though, and the narrative jokes about its own apparent lack of meaning; at one point in the middle of the film a written message appears on a tree trunk stating "IDEA MISSING."
Each day in the film ends with a news report. An example is the following:
"A New Mexico woman was named Final Arbiter of Taste and Justice today, ending God's lengthy search for someone to straighten this country out. Eileen Harriet Palglace will have final say on every known subject, including who should be put to death, what clothes everyone should wear, what movies suck, and whether bald men who grow ponytails should still get laid."
In the DVD commentary, the filmmakers point out that the reports never have anything to do with the story, and are generally satirical in nature.
The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival as a film surprise on May 18, 1996, where it was poorly received. This prompted the filmmakers to add the Cecil B. DeMille inspired introduction and conclusion in the theater as a way to signal to the viewers that the film was "ironical and self-serving". Schizopolis was given a limited theatrical release, as it was considered too odd for mainstream audiences. The film found an appreciative small audience and was included in the Criterion Collection, a specialist DVD distributor, which includes two audio commentaries, one of which consists of Soderbergh interviewing himself for the duration of the film.
Reviews of the film were mixed; it received a 59% rating at review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and a "mixed or average reviews" descriptor at Metacritic. Roger Ebert wrote that Schizopolis was "a truly inexplicable film...which had audiences filing out with sad, thoughtful faces". Leonard Maltin gave the film a rating of three stars out of four, and wrote in his Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, "A broad-ranging jab at modern society and its ills, its tone arch, its technique one of non sequiturs, and its audience likely to be small. But if you latch onto it early enough, you may find (as we did) that it's fun — and funny — to watch."