Steven Soderbergh's Strange Swan Song

Steven Soderbergh is one of Hollywood’s more unpredictable and rangy directors. You never know if you’re going to get a crowd-pleasing entertainment (the Ocean’s series), a smart thriller (Contagion), a dreary leftist diatribe (the four-hour Che), a parody of a film noir (The Good German,) or a surprisingly well-rounded character study disguised as a girls’ night out movie (Magic Mike).

Soderbergh’s latest combines elements of the thriller and the noir but is hardly a crowd-pleaser. Told in a chilly, detached style, Side Effects willfully keeps the audience from getting too involved, and the film is unlikely to remain in theaters very long. That would be disturbing if this is Soderbergh’s cinematic swan song, but despite his claims that he’s taking a long break from filmmaking his record suggests he won’t be able to stay away from the big screen for long. (On the small screen, Soderbergh will shortly be delivering to HBO his Liberace movie, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon as the pianist and his younger lover.)

Side Effects, if it is far from Soderbergh’s best work, still has its strengths, though describing exactly what they are would be giving away too much. Suffice it to say that Rooney Mara, who broke through with an Oscar nomination in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, proves that she is a star performer who can hold the screen without the bizarre hair and makeup and extreme behavior that made her Tattoo character an actress’s dream part. Moreover, she again does nude scenes, putting her in a small group of serious actresses who are willing to go wherever the role takes them.

Jude Law, his boyish charm gone, is every bit Mara’s equal as a perhaps shady psychiatrist who is randomly assigned to treat her character, Emily, in a hospital after she inexplicably rams her car straight into the wall of a parking garage. Having recently welcomed her financier husband (Channing Tatum) home from prison after he served several years for insider trading, she falls into a deep depression which Martin (Law) tries to treat with the name-brand antidepressants that we’ve all become slightly too familiar with in the last 20 years. Her previous psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), encourages him to start the patient on a different medication, called Ablixa. Meanwhile Martin, who has a wife (Vinessa Shaw) and a son in private school to worry about, casually accepts a pharmaceutical company’s offer to take part in a trial study meant to promote another drug, for which he will receive $50,000.

Emily and especially Martin are the kind of intriguingly flawed characters that attract Soderbergh, and though the banker played by Tatum doesn’t get much screen time, the movie becomes a highly watchable clash of personalities as the plot moves in some unexpected directions.

Mara, all sad eyes and cheekbones, makes for a cunning and magnetic presence who hardly needs to raise her voice or her glance to steal scenes. She’s utterly convincing as her character slips into what she calls a “poisonous fog bank” of depression, and she’s so girlish and fragile that the audience can’t help rooting for her to pull out of her downward spiral even as some strange details about her case come to light.

Meanwhile Law does a terrific job with his morally compromised but still essentially decent (we think) physician. His character raises fraught, up-to-the-minute issues about overprescribing of drugs, about hushed-up side effects that might be worse than the disease being treated, and about the ethics of the dealings between doctors and drug companies. Though a feeble movie called Love and Other Drugs covered some of this ground a couple of years ago, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who previously collaborated on Contagion, have the intelligence to give these points the attention they deserve and do a credible job of working them into the narrative.

Yet the movie is nowhere near as propulsive or compelling as the formidable Contagion, and it becomes more formulaic as it goes on. (In fact, by the end, it pretty well matches the kind of 1940s potboilers Soderbergh imitated in The Good German.) All of this is in the service of keeping you guessing, which Soderbergh does elegantly, though you may or may not feel, at the end, that you got the kind of film you signed up for.

This review must remain vague so as not to spoil the plot, but despite Soderbergh’s evident refusal to make Side Effects too commercial, it will reward those who enjoy a well-crafted (if quiet and low-key) indie effort. Calling such a film a “thriller,” though, is a bit misleading; it’s more of a “thinker.”


More new release reviews from John Boot:

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