Side Effects Review
Steven Soderbergh has, since his 1989 debut sex, lies and videotape, been arguably the most important filmmaker to have emerged from the independent movie scene in the 1990s. Many of his contemporaries (such as David O. Russell and Paul Thomas Anderson) have gone on to greater critical acclaim, whilst others (like Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino) have greater cultural cache, but few have been as prolific, diverse or daring as Soderbergh. He has managed to veer between classy mainstream entertainments (Erin Brockovich, Oceans 11), clever genre pieces (Out of Sight, The Limey) and out-and-out cinematic experimentation (Bubble, The Good German, Schizopolis) with rarely a complete misstep, all the while being one of the foremost proponents for breaking new terrain with digital cinematography and new distribution methods.
Side Effects, his latest, comes with not just his pedigree, but the promise that it will be his last movie. Soderbergh’s retirement, if such a thing is to be believed from a man who has made 26 feature films in 24 years, will be devoted to other pursuits, such as painting, theatre, and, more likely than not, an HBO series or two. Side Effects is not a truly great film in the vein of his most memorable work, but as a curtain call, it’ll do.
Rooney Mara stars as Emily, a woman readjusting to life as her husband (Channing Tatum) comes home from a four year stint in prison for insider trading. Bouts of depression and suicidal tendencies bring her into the care of a psychiatrist (Jude Law), who has recently struck a lucrative deal with a pharmaceutical company to prescribe Ablixa, a new anti-depressant, to his patients. Soon Emily beings to exhibit strange behaviour patterns, but to say any more would rob this twisting thriller of its most potent moments.
In the first half, Side Effects resembles an anti-industry polemic, in a similar vein to 2000’s double-whammy of Traffic and Erin Brockovich, except this time with big pharmaceutical companies in Soderbergh’s sights. But just as the message starts to feel too didactic and easy, the ground shifts substantially into much pulpier terrain.
With Soderbergh’s mature direction and some intelligent scene work from writer Scott Z. Burns (who collaborated with Soderbergh on the similarly psychologically-driven Matt Damon vehicle The Informant!), Side Effects rises above the more lurid, outsized plot turns that would derail lesser filmmakers. Soderbergh always keeps the drama compelling through unusual shot choices and patient editing, refraining from reveling too much in the sillier aspects of the story. Silly it becomes nonetheless, but Jude Law and Rooney Mara ably anchor the film with strong turns. Law in particular is terrific, once again proving to be a more capable and intelligent actor than he is perhaps widely acknowledged for.
It’s hard to watch the screen fade to black for a final time on a Soderbergh picture, especially on one that will not be remembered as a crowning achievement. For a man so determined to reinvent himself and play with the cinematic form, it feels somewhat strange that he would end his career on a fairly insubstantial film, rather than attempt to deliver the medium its coup de grâce. You can sense a frustration in Soderbergh, a frustration that cinema is not quite malleable enough to keep him engrossed. His career of experimentation ends with perhaps fewer true masterpieces than his talent often suggested. Yet the modern filmscape would be much poorer without the man who challenged it and wrestled with it moreso than any mainstream American director in the last two decades. Side Effects will not itself live long in the memory; his legacy will.
Posted by Prester John - 3/2/2013 9:58:09 PM