Silver Screen: Side Effects ****1/2
Retirement is in the news lately, as the Pope stepped down to spend more time covering up sex-abuse scandals with his family. Only slightly less shocking was the announcement that workaholic director Steven Soderbergh would stop making feature films. We can only hope that Soderbergh’s retirement is of the Stephen King/Barbra Streisand variety, in which the press release calling it quits is still cooling in the printer tray when the next big project is announced. It would be a particular shame for Soderbergh to step away now, as he’s arguably in the most interesting phase of his career.
Soderbergh was one of the progenitors of the 1990s indie-film movement, but during the later half of the decade began dallying with more conventional, big-budget productions. He found significant success taking a serious but unpretentious approach to pure Hollywood entertainment, and for a time alternated between slick star vehicles like Erin Brockovich and the Ocean’s series and resolutely arthouse projects like Bubble and Che.
As far back as the early 2000s he tried, with less success, to strike a balance between the two sides of Soderbergh with some intriguing duds, Full Frontal and Solaris. They mashed up the big stars and the big ideas, but the results were dissonant. It’s only during the last few years that he’s found harmony between his commercial and experimental impulses, and the result has been a glut of compelling movies. After the release of the moving, posthumous documentary about frequent collaborator Spalding Gray in 2010, Soderbergh released in quick succession Contagion, Haywire, and Magic Mike. There he found the perils of globalization in a medical disaster movie, then bent traditional gender roles in a smartly subverted action flick, and created his own wry riff on Flashdance.
Soderbergh keeps his impressive streak going with Side Effects, which he claims will be his final theatrical release (a TV biopic of Liberace starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon is due out later this year). It’s a nifty psychological thriller that serves up social critique without lapsing into being issue-driven, mostly by keeping a smart distance between the twisty trajectory of its plot and its prevalent concern with the American pharmacopia.
The wispy, brittle Rooney Mara is perfectly cast as Emily, the once-wealthy wife of a stock trader (Channing Tatum) who lost it all when he was sentenced for insider trading. As the film opens, her husband Martin is fresh out of jail and eager to return the couple to riches, but the burden of his incarceration has taken a toll on Emily. She starts seeing smarmy psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who puts her through a series of mood-altering drugs Zoloft, Effexor, Celexa, et cetera, before signing her up for a study of a new pill, Ablixa.
It’s no coincidence that Banks, struggling financially, has recently taken a five-figure payout from the Ablixa reps to conduct a study of the treatment using his own volunteer patients. Or is it indeed a coincidence? That becomes a key question after Emily, in a druggy delusional state, commits a sudden, brutal act of violence. Banks seeks help from Emily’s former shrink (Catherine Zeta-Jones), but his search for evidence that will acquit him of wrongdoing only seems to uncover more of his troubled past.
Soderbergh’s sometimes chilly, detached aesthetic is ideally suited for a movie about people seeking a chemical barrier between themselves and an unbearable tide of emotion. The director and his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, who also collaborated on Contagion, have a lot to say about America’s fondness for solutions that come straight from a bottle, but they approach the subject deftly. When the overworked Banks cracks open a Red Bull and says aloud, “Better living through chemistry,” it isn’t entirely subtle, but the remainder of the film refrains from such blatant irony or simplistic antidrug sentiment. Ultimately the plot unfolds more like that of a Hitchcock thriller, its betrayals rooted in classic motivations of greed and revenge, with Soderbergh emphasizing not so much the remarkable outcome of this misadventure in medication but rather just how insidiously common chemical dependence has become.
Soderbergh manages not to sacrifice insight for momentum, nor does he bog down the plot with blustery pontification. Side Effects is lean and efficient, punctuated with great black humor and fine performances from Mara and a rarely better Law. It’s the work of a director who has mastered the natural rhythms of storytelling, the technical expertise of presentation, and a modest but confident sense of purpose. Come on, Steve, how about an encore or two?
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.