review for Kafka on AllMovie

Kafka (1991)
by Michael Hastings review

Director Steven Soderbergh's stubbornly oblique second feature so adheres to the conventional wisdom about the sophomore slump that it should be pictured next to a dictionary definition of the term. The then-29-year-old director was clearly struggling to prove that he could tackle headier material than his low-key, character-driven psychodrama debut: With its period setting, Prague locations, black-and-white/color mise-en-scène, and literary-homage pretensions, Kafka is in every way the anti-sex, lies, and videotape. It's also not that good, despite some moments of fleeting brilliance. If Soderbergh seemed very much a fresh cinematic voice with his first feature, Kafka sees him tackling a material and style better-suited to David Cronenberg, Terry Gilliam, or Peter Greenaway. Likewise, Jeremy Irons seems completely adrift as the Kafkaesque everyman who, despite the name Kafka, bears little in common with the writer himself. Bizarre cameos from distinguished actors abound, but Soderbergh doesn't allow much humor to infect his exercise in undergrad-philosophy weird. By trying to take his place among the pantheon of hyper-referential director/film-historians (see also: Peter Bogdanovich, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese), Soderbergh managed to exile himself from Hollywood completely; Kafka was a commercial and critical failure. Although his next feature, 1993's King of the Hill, would reaffirm his status as a director of genuine warmth and unpretentious skill, it would take until 1998's Out of Sight for the director to convince his detractors that he had lost the chill of Kafka.