Side Effects: Why We’ll Miss Steven Soderbergh

by Ethan Alter February 8, 2013 6:00 am
<i>Side Effects</i>: Why We’ll Miss Steven Soderbergh

Steven Soderbergh has been threatening to retire from filmmaking for some time now, but with Side Effects, he really means it. This is the last theatrical feature that the director of some of the finest movies of the past twenty-five odd years (if forced to choose, my Top 5 would probably look something like King of the Hill, Out of Sight, Che, The Limey and The Informant!, but that's leaving out a host of other great films, including sex, lies and videotape and Contagion) will helm for the foreseeable future, as he instead turns his focus to other artistic pursuits, painting and theater among them. (Soderbergh's does have one last narrative feature in the pipeline, the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, which is scheduled to premiere on HBO later this year.) As a swan song, Side Effects -- which stars Rooney Mara as the pill-popping wife of a disgraced Wall Street turk (Channing Tatum) fresh out of a prison stint for insider trading -- won't join the ranks of Soderbergh's finest achievements, marred as it is by a third act turn into thriller territory that, while entertaining, suffers from a series of too-convenient coincidences and a reliance on one very unfortunate stereotype. Still, the film does effectively encapsulate what has made him one of America's leading directors for almost three decades now... and why he'll be missed now that he's (at least temporarily) gone.

Because He Tackles Big Subjects in Small, Personal Ways
Going back to his breakout feature, sex, lies and videotape, Soderbergh has always been interesting in addressing ideas and issues currently rippling through the country's consciousness. That movie, of course, tackled post-Fatal Attraction concerns about marriage and adultery and Soderbergh would go on to explore such varied subjects as the drug war (Traffic), the environment (Erin Brokovich) and the economy (The Girlfriend Experience). Yet Soderbergh was always very careful to ground these larger narratives in ultra-specific settings and groups of characters. For a director that's frequently accused of being too cerebral or closed-off from humanity, his movies consistently demonstrate just how fascinated he is by people, their passions and their contradictions. Even those movies that don't seem to be about much of anything (i.e. the Ocean's franchise) are still strongly rooted in character.

The same goes for Side Effects, in which Soderbergh and his regular collaborator Scott Z. Burns take on the hot topic of prescription drugs, specifically those that are intended to cure depression and/or anxiety. Ever since her husband Martin (Tatum) was sprung from prison, Emily (Mara) has had difficulty functioning; she's moody, weary and out of sorts. After a car "accident" that wasn't really an accident, she's assigned to the care of Dr. Banks (Jude Law), a good-looking, professionally ambitious psychiatrist who promptly tries her out on a series of different medications in search of just the right pill to restore her to her old happy-go-lucky self. But the meds just seem to be making her worse and, eventually, she does something that alters her life -- not to mention Martin and Banks's lives -- forever. I'm loath to say exactly what that is, because it's the first big surprise in a movie filled with them. Suffice to say, it's the kind of tragic life choice she'd immediately take back... if only she could remember making it. The movie's depiction of depression, not to mention the easy way the doctors dispense drugs and how their patients come to depend on them, is smart and sensitive and feels all too real. Which is why some viewers might feel betrayed when Side Effects jumps the track from drama to thriller. It does the first genre exceptionally well... the second, not so much.

Because He's a Formal Wizard
Few director willingly reinvent themselves from film to film the way Soderbergh has. He's gone out of his way to avoid developing a defining style, approaching every film as a way to test out new ideas for shooting (it helps that he's been his own cinematographer since Traffic), editing and even basic storytelling. It's not that films like Out of Sight, Solaris and Bubble feel like they were made by different directors; it's that they are all clearly the product of the same director whose boundless ambitions happen to be backed by expert technical skill. With Side Effects, Soderbergh moves himself into territory previously occupied Polanksi and De Palma -- urban dramatic thrillers about screwed-up people that are told with a healthy amount of dark humor. Although shot in New York, Soderbergh deliberately transforms the city into an anonymous metropolis, one in which Emily feels lost and alone. (The other movie that Side Effects put me in mind of was Todd Haynes's 1995 masterwork Safe, in which Julianne Moore abandoned the real and imagined pollution of her city existence for a life of almost complete isolation on a remote holistic compound.) He also relies on the close-up more than he has in the past, frequently keeping the camera about an inch from Mara's face while the rest of the cast tends to remain in the background. Even when Burns's script falters, Soderbergh's direction remains laser-precise.

Because He Gives Actors a Chance to Show Their Range
Again, going back to sex, lies and videotape, few people (including Soderbergh himself, actually) would have thought that model-turned-fledgling-actress Andie MacDowell would have been capable of convincingly playing a frigid housewife with a cheating husband. But under Soderbergh's direction, she delivered a terrific performance, one that she has yet to equal. In the ensuing years, he would hand actors like Matt Damon, Jennifer Lopez, George Clooney (whom he rescued from post-Batman & Robin infamy with Out of Sight), Don Cheadle, Julia Roberts and, most recently, Channing Tatum, some of their most career-defining roles, which in many cases, also happened to be striking departures from their established screen personas. Granted, sometimes his experiments don't work out -- Clooney was the wrong guy to headline Solaris, while Haywire revealed that Gina Carano might be a terrific fighter, but she's not such a great performer to build a movie around. But more often than not, actors flourish under his direction, because he trusts them while also challenging them. For instance, his use of Law in Contagion and Side Effects is really interesting, as in both movies he brings out the selfish, slightly predatory nature that lurks beneath those matinee-idol looks. And Mara is terrific for a good ¾'s of the movie, until the script undermines her in the home stretch. (One of the criticisms that I expect to see about the movie -- and it's a valid one -- is that Burns and Soderbergh go from taking the issue of depression very seriously to reducing it to a plot point in a thriller and, even more damagingly, intimating that it's a condition that can be faked, thus minimizing its gravity. But I hope that critique doesn't spill over to Mara, who is wholly committed to her portrayal of a severely depressed individual.)

Because He's Not Afraid of Failure
Yes, Burns and Soderbergh could have ditched the thriller element and just made a straightforward drama about the potential perils of prescription medication. And the resulting movie would likely have been better for it. But Soderbergh can never not resist the urge to push himself and the material further. That riskiness has resulted in some profound failures (i.e. Full Frontal, The Good German and Solaris, although the latter seriously deserves a second look) but also films that are bold new takes on familiar genres -- the two-part Che being the most obvious example in the way it defies typical biopic clichés. Side Effects can't reconcile its split personality in the end, but part of the pleasure of the film lies in watching Soderbergh venturing fearlessly down the rabbit hole he's dug for himself.




Get the most of your experience.
Share the Snark!

See content relevant to you based on what your friends are reading and watching.

Share your activity with your friends to Facebook's News Feed, Timeline and Ticker.

Stay in Control: Delete any item from your activity that you choose not to share.



Movies Without Pity

The Latest Activity On TwOP