Friday, April 19, 2013

Side Effects – Steven Soderbergh

Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh – USA) 106 minutes

I can’t say I have ever really loved a film by Steven Soderbergh but he is a man I have a lot of respect for. It’s hard not to admire him: a director who bounced back to Hollywood bankability after a glittering start to his career ran aground; a man of Stakhanovite industry who has strung together almost thirty features in less than twenty-five years; he juggles writing, directing, producing, editing and photography; he is famed for bringing productions in on or even under budget, something that has eased his latter career in a notoriously philistine Hollywood. He is also capable of balancing commercial accessibility and more left-field experimentation.

To be honest, it is only down to personal taste that I have never fallen completely for a Soderbergh film, because there have been many good ones. He is at his best when he reaches for levity (Out of Sight, The Informant!, the Oceans 11 franchise, Magic Mike) or takes formal and thematic risks (Schizopolis, The Limey, Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience). Side Effects, supposedly his last theatrical release (the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra is being made for HBO but is being released in cinemas outside the US) falls between those two stools. A medical thriller, at first glance it appears strikingly similar to Soderbergh’s last collaboration with writer Scott Z. Burns, Contagion, a horrendously hammy swine-flu thriller that was inexplicably watchable, if only for all the unintentional laughs it provoked. In the latest film, Rooney Mara plays Emily, a depressive young woman whose trader husband (Channing Tatum) is just getting out of prison after serving time for insider dealing. After an attempted suicide, she is confided to Jonathan Banks, a Manhattan psychiatrist (Jude Law), who prescribes her various anti-depressants that don’t seem to work, until he puts her on one that he is trialling while on the payroll of a pharmaceutical company.

This is where the side effects of the title come in, throwing the lives of both Emily and Jonathan into freefall, though one doesn’t want to divulge too much in advance about what happens. Soderbergh moves things along with brisk efficiency and Mara is excellent as the doe-eyed, troubled Emily, an at times frighteningly realistic portrayal of black depression. Less good is Law, though to be fair he is also less bad than he often is; there are few prominent actors so lacking in empathy and charisma, whose delivery is so askew and stilted. Law’s career nadir – after a long dive – was probably the over-the-top conspiracy-theorist blogger he played in Contagion; here he grates from time to time, mainly in his overly transparent acting – there are far too many lines enunciated as if his voice is negotiating a hairpin bend, far too many gross physical gestures to underline his angst or anger. Law is like those self-satisfied public school old boys who talk loudly when in a group of people just on the off-chance they might say something witty and be overheard. That said, it just about works here because his character is not really meant to be too sympathetic either. Even worse though is Catherine Zeta-Jones as Emily’s Machiavellian former shrink, a cardboard sinister vamp if ever there was one.

Side Effects changes tack on a number of occasions throughout the film and ends up being something quite different from what it started out as. Its protean plot and darkly bitter intrigue reminded me of Brian de Palma’s recent Passion (each has one of the Lisbeth Salanders – de Palma casting Noomi Rapace) but the latter film is more satisfying because its foreign-set borderline cheapness gives it a vastly more unrespectable air. Soderbergh’s retirement may not be definitive but Side Effects is a decent enough effort to leave us with for now. I am still waiting on a Soderbergh film I can say I love unreservedly though.


LukeM said...

Matt Damon said something perceptive about Soderbergh - that he had no interest in storytelling, just in form. I think Out Of Sight is the moment when his slickness and deft control met at a story with enough heart and entertainment value to create perfection. I think it was also George Clooney's first film role that wasn't a disaster. SS abandoning of cinema in favour of television seems overblown to me - he's got a new HBO film coming out and a series to follow

seanachie said...

I don't think that's entirely fair to Soderbergh. He's no less interested in storytelling than most directors currently working in Hollywood – Out of Sight, the Ocean's 11 films, Haywire, Magic Mike, Contagion (bad as it is), The Informant! and this one are all solidly conventional mainstream films. It is true that his ability to frame a story flags at times – Traffic and Che in particular suffer from this, and there are other films where formal or thematic concerns are more to the fore. The HBO film is coming out in cinemas outside the US, or at least in France. I don't think he'll give up on films either but he probably misses the fallow period in the 90s, prior to Out of Sight, when he was able to experiment more freely. We'll probably see more of that.