If rumours are to be believed, Side Effects may very well be Steven Soderbergh’s final movie (following his upcoming TV drama starring Michael Douglas as Liberace).
This would a devastating blow to cinema as Soderbergh is one of the most inventive and unpredictable voices in contemporary cinema. He’s just as comfortable with planting his feet in the indie scene (Sex, Lies and Videotape; Full Frontal) as he is with big-budget, glossy, star-powered vehicles (the Oceans movies). This straddling has led to a genuinely interesting career, one that’s ranged from Elmore Leonard adaptations (Out of Sight) to a major two-part biopic of Che Guevara.
Taken on its own terms, Side Effects isn’t the most auspicious curtain call, if it does indeed turn out to be the director’s last movie. It’s akin to two halves of different movies bolted together, with the intriguing first -but the audaciousness with which the tonal shift is managed is characteristic of the director. Put simply, a minor Soderbergh offers more pleasure than many other movies by major directors.
The story begins with a young woman called Emily (Rooney Mara). She’s awaiting the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison, who was sent down for insider trading. Frustrated that her ongoing problems with depression are affecting her marriage, Emily is prescribed a variety of drugs -until her psychiatrist Jonathan (Jude Law) prescribes her a new one called Ablixa. It’s a move that has shocking and unpredictable consequences.
Most of the pleasure of the film comes back to the actors in front of the camera. Soderbergh triumphs in securing performers who are brilliant at projecting a sense of ambivalence. Mara, Law and Zeta-Jones are all actors who are often difficult to warm to on-screen -which works brilliantly for the film. Think for example of Mara’s chilly take on Lisbeth Salander in the remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Law’s arrogant Dicky Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley; or Zeta-Jones’ high-powered vamps in the likes of Intolerable Cruelty. It’s never clear what we’re meant to think of each of the characters in the story, whether they’re victims or villains -and the baggage that the actors bring with them works very much in their favour.
Mara in particular is terrific as the depressed Emily, every sideways glance and blank stare suggesting an emotional vacuum -or something else entirely. Law likewise excels as the psychiatrist who may genuinely be out to help or out to further his own career. With Soderbergh’s woozy, hazy cinematography lending a chilly, antiseptic quality (the director again working under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), there’s a constant level of voyeuristic unease that gets under the skin, aided and abetted by Thomas Newman’s tinkling score (one with occasional overtones of Goblin’s work on Suspiria).
So, the omens are all good, with the first half of the movie shaping up as an insightful expose of Big Pharma crossed with a compelling character study. It’s a shame then that when the crucial midway point arrives, the movie downshifts from something genuinely complex to something trashy. If the move is enjoyable, it’s simply because it’s so unexpected -but on closer inspection has the effect of making the first half of the movie seem like a cover for something less compelling. It calls to mind the silliness of the 1993 Nicole Kidman-Alec Baldwin film Malice -a film in which a serial killer subplot was simply thrown in on the sadistic whim of the screenwriters.
But even if the film reveals itself to be somewhat less sophisticated than it initially appears, it still maintains a perversely watchable quality. Soderbergh has always been one to take risks -and if this risk taker does decide to step down from the world of movies, his absence will be very much felt.