If you know Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece High and Low (1963) — and if you don’t, you’ve got some urgent viewing to do — you’re going to guess the major plot twist early on in Full Circle, Steven Soderbergh’s new six-part series. Both works concern the botched attempt to kidnap a boy from a wealthy family, a calamitous event that wreaks havoc among unexpectedly intertwined lives up and down the class scale.
Keep in mind that, for all his hyper-competence as a filmmaker, Soderbergh isn’t in Kurosawa’s league. Admittedly, almost no one is. The series’ complex multicharacter, multi-plot-strand, multinational narrative — a Soderberghian tendency by now — gets off to a slow, disjointed start, only gradually building suspense over the course of the two episodes currently available to view on Max. There’s a kind of baggy, unformed quality to the structure — too long and plodding in some sequences, racing along at a choppy pace in others — making it unsurprising to read that the show was being rewritten on the fly during production.
There’s an excellent cast doing all they can, featuring Timothy Olyphant and Claire Danes as Derek and Sam Browne, the parents of the targeted teenager, Jared (Ethan Stoddard). Dennis Quaid plays “Chef Jeff” McCusker, an abrasive celebrity chef whose multimedia empire, run by his daughter Sam, generates the family fortune. Jeff’s corrupt and clandestine business practices are indicated immediately by the loathsome French-braided ponytail he wears, by his smarmy way of protesting too much about all his good deeds and charitable works, and also by the goons who show up with bags of cash to assist him in a crisis. And there are many hints at secrets and lies involving tormented son-in-law Derek.
CCH Pounder plays Savitri Mahabir, who heads a Guyanese crime family operating out of Queens. In consultation with a mysterious shamanic figure, she has designed an intricate plan to get revenge against an as-yet-unnamed business rival, as well as lift a curse that has long plagued her family. This design involves renderings of and references to the image of coming “full circle” that is central to her kidnapping plan, including a reference to pi in the amount of ransom money demanded: $314,159. Her nephew Aked (Jharrel Jerome of I’m a Virgo and Moonlight) is tasked with pulling in poor young Guyanese immigrants including Louis (Gerald Jones), Xavier (Sheyi Cole), and Natalia (Adia) to do Mrs Mahabir’s dirty work, paying their way to New York City as a way to hold them in bondage indefinitely until they can pay the money back.
And Zazie Beetz plays Melody “Mel” Harmony, an obsessively ambitious Postal Service inspector — described as someone investigating mail-related crimes, but she behaves like a regular cop in a cop show. She’s sick of cafeteria meetings with her stolid, doughy boss Manny Broward (Jim Gaffigan), who seems determined to hold her back. At the same time, he’s got a point — she’s incredibly callous and arrogant and grating in her desperate careerist desire to be in on the solving of a “sexy” crime, like the Browne family kidnapping.
It’s possible that there will be a cumulative impact by the sixth episode of Full Circle, and the crisscrossing patterns of race, class, age, gender, sexuality, nationality, and ideology will all cohere into something meaningful at the end. That’s betting that Soderbergh is working in the zone where he achieves his best effects, which so far doesn’t look like the case. He’s incredibly uneven — for every inspired film like The Limey (1999), for example, he churns out a rote dud like Kimi (2022). But at least he’s relatively unpredictable and periodically does something genuinely exciting.
His long career ranges from big-budget star-studded crowd-pleasers like Magic Mike (2012), Contagion (2011), Ocean’s Eleven (2001), and Erin Brockovich (2000) to small-to-mid-sized genre films like The Limey, Traffic (2000), and Out of Sight (1998), to indie, experimental, and oddball works such as The Girlfriend Experience (2009), The Informant! (2009), Bubble (2005), Schizopolis (1996), and Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989). These days he seems largely occupied with churning out HBO/Max and Netflix films. With Full Circle he’s once again working in partnership with writer Ed Solomon (of Men in Black and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure). Their last collaborations for HBO were No Sudden Move (2021) and Mosaic (2018).
The good news is that both have a healthy respect for genre. The bad news is that genre can only help you so much when what you’re interested in thematically isn’t very clear or compelling. “It never begins, thus it never ends,” a voice intones at the very beginning of the series, and the face of Jared Browne, circled in red in a newspaper shot of his wealthy family, also underscores the “full circle” idea of a long overdue payback for old sins. From this beginning it’s pretty manifest that the wealthy, seemingly respectable white family with a celebrity founder will be revealed to have violent and exploitative connections to the black crime family reflective of a grim colonial history.
Maybe Full Circle will make something more exciting from that than what we see so far. But it’s turning out to be a bit of a slog.