Soderbergh bows gracefully with 'Side Effects'
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Since his 1989 writing-directing debut, "Sex, Lies, and Videotape," Steven Soderbergh's filmography has moved, whether by his whim or by external circumstances, between genres and budget levels, major studios and micro-studios, from shooting on film to shooting on video. The two things his films share are that they seem to both have nothing in common and yet share one common trait, which is specifically the way Soderbergh explores and explodes genre, delivering both the immediate pleasures of the story but also plenty of subtext for later contemplation. ("Ocean's Eleven" isn't just a terrific heist film; it's a knowing riff on them, able to laugh at itself even as it's busy delivering the goods.)
"Side Effects," which is also the last film Soderbergh has said he's making for theaters before retiring to pursue other aims, fits into that filmography. What starts as a dramatic look at the easy cures of 21st-century psychopharmacology and the difficult sicknesses of late-stage capitalism takes more than a few curves on its way to the finish. Channing Tatum, jailed for insider trading, is coming home; his wife, Rooney Mara, has been waiting for him. But when the stress seems to be overwhelming Mara, psychiatrist Jude Law prescribes a new wonder drug — one where he's also a paid consultant and tester for the company behind it — and her behavior post-pills becomes problematic in a whole different way.
Discussing the plot too much — indeed, even watching the trailer — reveals too many of the film's pleasures, but it should be said that the performances are all excellent, especially from Mara and Law. Freed from the dreary clichés of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Mara gets to give a real performance here, and it's one that drives the film. Written by "Contagion" and "The Informant!" screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, "Side Effects" doesn't have an unnecessary scene or dead line of dialogue — though it may take a little thought to put them in context when their meaning gets revealed later on. Both shot with the high-def Red camera and edited by Soderbergh himself, "Side Effects" is fleet-footed and frisky, diving into the more lurid depths of its own story with measured care and skill.
There are a few plot points that stick in "Side Effects" — but they catch in your mind only in retrospect, and at the time you're caught up in the plots within the plot. (And the fact is, that laser-eyed, shallow focus on "plot holes" that can't be troubled to look at how well the movie around them works is one of the more annoying of the many wretched things the Internet-commenter generation has done in its constant effort to turn film analysis into simply watching movies as opposed to actually seeing and appreciating them.) Soderbergh is following in the footsteps of Hitchcock here, and also Lumet, and those two masters of the cinema were also too busy making great entertainment to fret about making their plots airtight and thus, suffocated, either.
No one, aside from Soderbergh himself, can really say if this is his last movie for the big screen or not. Considering the rate of his output — Soderbergh makes a movie in what seems like the time it takes Tarantino to make a sandwich — it's easy to imagine, or, rather hope, that he'll get bored relatively fast. Even if he doesn't, though, "Side Effects" will be a nice farewell: fun and smart, with cutting satire and blunt shocks. In fact, looking at the shooting and story of "Side Effects," it's almost perfect. The director who came into the field with "Sex, Lies, and Videotape" leaves it with sex and lies shot on video, still surprising us with both the stories he tells and the stories hidden inside them.James Rocchi has written reviews and articles for print and online publications, including Total Film Magazine, the Toronto Star, IndieWire's The Playlist, Mother Jones, AMCtv.com and Cinematical.com. He's covered film festivals including Sundance, Cannes, the Toronto International Film Festival, SXSW and Fantastic Fest. He's been an on-air reviewer for CBS-5 San Francisco and a reviewer and commentator for CNN, G4, TechTV and more. He lives in Los Angeles, which is both exactly and not at all like the movies suggest it is.