Stephen Soderbergh is the Hollywood chameleon. He’s covered heists, epidemics, male strippers, infidelity, drug trafficking, Che
Guevara, film noir, French New Wave, documentary, science fiction and every genre in between. Some of his films make money. Some of them win awards. You have probably never heard of some of them. Unlike Tarantino or Spielberg, he’s content to remain the author unknown, burying his name behind his prolific output, allowing the art to speak for itself.
And now he’s retiring.
“Side Effects,” his final theatrical release, written by frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns, bears the burden of speaking both for itself and Soderbergh’s output spanning the last two decades, as if it can summarize such disparate work as “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Magic Mike” and align them into a satisfying career statement. Seen in this light, “Side Effects” is a failure. It’s more curiosity than a last hurrah: a psychological drama framed as cool medical thriller with a murder-mystery tucked jarringly between. It employs an ensemble of top-bill actors only to paint them as duplicitous liars, existing on the periphery of audience sympathy. By the end, we’re unsure whether we’ve been satisfied or not. What did we expect from this film anyway?
At first it’s simple enough. Emily Taylor, played by Rooney Mara, is suffering. Another character describes her as a “wounded bird” and I couldn’t disagree. She’s suffering because her husband Martin, played by Channing Tatum, has just finished time in prison for insider trading, and he emerges brimming with lofty plans for new business ventures. Emily’s hesitant to embrace his visions. We’re not sure how hesitant until, leaving work one day, Emily drives into a concrete wall.
Her intentions seem clear to the authorities. There were no skid marks; Emily didn’t slow down. I don’t recall the words “suicide” or “depression” being said aloud but the subtext is clear. Emily is assigned to psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks, a very icy Jude Law, on the assumption her attempt was a flub and she sincerely wants to get better. Banks accepts her justification and offers his support through a series of prescriptions. Anyone familiar with the American mental health system will recognize the terms: SSRIs, antidepressants, Zoloft, they go by many names. “Side Effect’s” female characters discuss these medications like old friends and even Banks’s wife borrows his pills on stressful days.
Perhaps you walked into “Side Effects” expecting a treatise on the state of mental health today, where manic-depressives have access to guns while the slightly melancholy can self-medicate from over the counter. I certainly did. Maybe you’re lulled into thinking it’s the story of a woman wracked by inner demons and misunderstood by everyone, even her caretakers. For a short time, yes. And then the film disappears down its pillbox, into a landscape of delusions and lies.
If you haven’t seen the trailers or read any other reviews, you’re in a prime position to see “Side Effects.” At its most lurid, Soderbergh recalls Hitchcock, shocking unsuspecting audiences with a knife’s sudden plunge into flesh. Elsewhere, the film applies its breaks and guides viewers through the investigation process, keeping them arm’s length away, begging questions. Strong performances from Jude Law and Rooney Mara hold our attention even when their actions strike into morally ambiguous territory. Catherine Zeta-Jones’s appearance as Emily’s old psychiatrist adds another dimension of suspense, but it only works if you’re oblivious going in to everything after the first 15 minutes.
Soderbergh also handles cinematography under the pseudonym Peter Andrews. If there’s any unifying link to his work, it’s the gorgeous, deliberate camerawork, the rich coolness to the film’s texture and its impeccable framing. There’s no indication he sees “Side Effects” as a blow-off project, one last obligation before retirement. It’s composed with the same care and given the same dignity he’s reserved for the rest of his repertoire.
Which makes the surprisingly pedestrian conclusion and the Scooby-Doo explanation accompanying it all the weirder. “Side Effects” wraps up its serpentine weavings into a neat little bow, resolving all anxiety the audience might have had and leaving only a niggling sense of discomfort when it promised to disturb us beyond relief. It’d be a gutsy move to deprive audience of even that satisfaction, but the film’s already done enough of this by existing .
“Side Effects” does not encapsulate Soderbergh’s career, not in the way you’d assume. Like many of his films, it features great performances, stunning cinematography, excellent workmanship and a story whose weakness hides behind layers of intrigue. And yet there’s something resistant to easy summary behind its glossy office windows. We look into Rooney Mara’s doe eyes and see many things: suffering, deceit, confusion, spite, arousal. “Side Effects” deserves to be seen, to feel all these emotions and experience firsthand the mystifying craft of Hollywood’s most singular talent, now leaving us for greener pastures.