Soderbergh’s Messy Mosaic Jumps from App to HBO

'Mosaic,' HBOMosaic. HBO. Monday, January 22, 8 p.m.

Mosaic‘s title is a bit of sly wordplay. Obviously it derives from the task presented by Steven Soderbergh’s tale of murder in a small town—that is, to solve the crime. But something else needs to be pieced together here; namely, figuring out what the hell Mosaic is. A TV show? A video game? A digital version of one of those interactive dinner-theater murder mysteries?

Though Mosaic is airing on TV for the first time next week, it’s been around since last year as an app that allows viewers to direct the investigation themselves. Follow this clue or that. Pick the character whose perspective you wish the story to be told through. Check voicemails and emails between the suspects and the victim. Nothing you do will change the outcome—this isn’t Clue, the 1985 board game movie that was shot with multiple endings—but it apparently alters a viewer’s understanding of why things happened.

I haven’t used the Mosaic app myself. To me, the whole thing sounds like being invited to edit Soderbergh’s rough cut without getting paid for it. Those who have tried the app mostly seem to regard it as an interesting experiment that ultimately fails, which is kind of what people thought about K Street, Soderbergh’s 2003 HBO political drama shot with improvised dialogue rather than a script, except on that one, people used phrases like “utterly incomprehensible,” “egregiously stupid,” and “Soderbergh should be clubbed like a baby seal in place of the word “interesting.”

As for Mosaic‘s merits as strictly a TV show—it airs five hours over three consecutive nights—they are mixed. Sharon Stone plays retired writer Olivia Lake, whose reputation and (dwindling) wealth rest on a single lucky punch thrown a quarter of a century ago: a children’s book with multiple perspectives. It can be read as the story of a hunter trying to protect his family from a bear, or that of a bear trying to protect his family from a hunter.

Advancing age has activated Olivia’s cougar hormones, and she targets first a hunky young bartender (Garrett Hedlund, Unbroken) and then a charming corporate shark (Frederick Weller, Banshee) as romantic playthings. But it’s not all clear who’s zoomin’ who. The bartender is a would-be artist looking for a patron; the suit, a bunco artist interested in separating Olivia from the deed to her mountainside estate.

The multiple cons in Mosaic spin closer and closer, and a collision is inevitable. But when it comes, it’s from an unexpected direction: Eric Neill, the corporate shark, declares his love for Olivia and confesses his scheming. Dominoes begin tumbling in all directions, some of them lethal.

At times, Mosaic is a fascinating noir, especially when Stone is on screen. She hasn’t always chosen roles wisely, but anybody who’s seen her as the flighty mafia moll in Casino or the doomed woman on Death Row in Last Dance knows the extraordinary depth she can bring to the right film. It is on magnificent display in Mosaic.

Some of the other members of the cast match match her, particularly Paul Reubens (yeah, that Paul Reubens) as Olivia’s gay BFF and romantic strategist. Hedlund and Weller, on the other hand, offer flat and highly predictable performances that require the storyline to carry the show. Soderbergh’s needless opacity—making viewers guess whether days, weeks or months have passed since the last scene is not mysterious, just confusing—sometimes renders that a difficult proposition.

But a mosaic can’t be judged until the last piece is in place. This one gains momentum as it moves along, and ultimately is an absorbing exploration of the complexity and incertitude of human relations. “I think kids’ art is 100 percent a declaration of who they are,” says Olivia of one of her philanthropic passions. “I think it’s the last time we tell the truth.” I don’t know about kids, but don’t expect the truth from anybody in Mosaic.

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