Side Effects (2013)
It is with a significant pang of regret that we bid a fond adieu to director Steven Soderbergh and his (allegedly) final European theatrically released film Side Effects. If you’ll excuse the pun I don’t wish to get too ‘side’tracked but I think there are a few crucial items to consider before we delve into the movie itself, a concluding episode to his career which is as expected a superb contemporary drama which springboards into other areas with the dexterous ease of a state drilled East German Olympic gymnast, namely what on earth could drive such a prolific and endlessly inventive cinematic soul into potential big-screen retirement? Soderbergh has professed an interest in shifting his muse to painting or perhaps shepherding a HBO style series to living rooms and Blu-Ray players around the world, reading between the lines it appears that his growing frustration with meddling executives second guessing his choices and material coupled with a particularly gruelling phase of creative interference on the likes of Che has completely sapped his creative drive, and like Schrader he grandiosely claims that cinema is ‘dead’ given the fracturing of audiences and ubiquity of alternative and copyright evading technological delivery systems – I disagree but that’s an argument for another time. The rhinestone that broke the proverbial camel’s back sparkles around the controversy swirling around his final work, the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra which was denied a US distribution deal, apparently we Europeans will be getting a big screen opportunity later in the year but he has not been so fortunate on his home turf, and the film is destined for a cable screening and no big screen appearances. Now, I’m as cynical as the next critic and I rather foolishly assumed that the almighty dollar would overcome all prejudices, the astounding ROI that Soderbergh’s previous film Magic Mike achieved – a $7 million budget translating into a staggering $167 million global haul – well, I would have that success would have had the chequebooks snapping open faster than a producers zipper at a hooker convention. As a straight dude I’ll admit that a biopic on Liberace really doesn’t hold any interest for me whatsoever, a Soderbergh film however does so I’m minded that the executives comments that only gay people would be interested in such material is just ridiculously short-sighted, as I was under the impression that peoples money was just as bankable regardless of sexual orientation? Apparently not as the project was rejected by every studio despite its miniscule budget, and if a star laden vehicle – Michael Douglas and Matt Damon – can’t be snapped up for the very low millions then it’s a sad state of affairs indeed, and one suspects that there is some latent homophobia going on here with a studio nervous to be involved in what you might literally term a ‘gay’ project. In any case we are left with Side Effects, an effective swan song for Soderbergh to bow out at the ripe old age of fifty, perhaps a symptom of an industry sick with introspection and inaction?
Rooney Mara sheds the makeup and accent from the Girl With The Dragon Tattoo but retains some of that fragile, anxious beauty as the porclean skinned Emily Taylor, married to sensitive miscreant and Soderbergh regular leading man Channing Tatum whom is released from a 4 year stretch for insider trading as the film anxiously opens. Emily has been suffering severe depression following the disintegration of her perfect life and a possible suicide attempt or at least a cry for help lands her in the ER where Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is assigned as her distantly concerned, state mandated psychiatrist. Professional smitten with this wounded creature Banks takes an interest in her plight and prescribes her a phalanx of pharmaceutical crutches, including a programme of treatment with Ablixa, the new wonder product which he has been convinced to trial with his patients via a $50K fee which fiscally sweetens the deal given his ballooning financial responsibilities – private school for his stepson, a new apartment in one of the more desirable enclaves of New York. Initially her transformation is welcome, Emily regains focus of her life, her energy and her sexual drive, but the titular side effects of this chemical regime sparks a new series of neuroleptic activities, as one problem is surpassed others blossom in their wake. Soon disaster strikes – and I haven’t heard an audience react so strongly to a certain plot pivot for quite a while – and the film takes a horrendous turn into a parallel arena, as Banks consults with his colleague and Emily’s previous shrink Victoria (Catherine Zeta Jones) her past psyciatric history suggests all is not as it seems…..
There is no small pang of depression as the credits rolled and yet another finely honed thriller was prescribed, heck I even stayed until the lights came up as a small and quiet tribute to Mr. Soderbergh’s terrific quarter century career. Side Effects isn’t simply a searing indictment of a chemically frayed society, looking for answers and solace in the wonderful sterility of international pharma who perhaps have their eyes on the bottom line and are not even remotely interested in the mental well-being of their hordes of punters, there is also a vague sense of unease with corporate mandated happiness, where even the beautiful and wealthy people find themselves afflicted with a distant and elusive ennui as the intangible pressures of modern life ravage the spirit – you must raise the pefect children, progress the perfect career, have the beautiful and successful partner. It’s certainly a smart exercise in genre manipulation, as a film which begins as a contemporary melodrama before shockingly transforming into a legal drama, then pulling the rug out once again for a left turn down to other nefarious realms which I’ll keep schtum for fear of spoilers, it’s a convincing blend of storytelling styles which Soderbergh transmits without shifting his visual style or palette, and as such it is a neat encapsulation of his entire genre flirting career. I’ve had my issues with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jude Law in the past with some of their occassionaly horrendous acting styles and choices, but in Side Effects they convince as fully rounded creatures of their profession, Law in particular transforming from a not entirely likeable ambitious medical professional to a beleaguered and trapped figure, he feels like a shaded character with his own specific qualities and foibles, rather than a simple black or white, good or bad guy.
I loved the little nods to Psycho which appropriately enough bookend the film with those gods eye pans into the drama, like Hitchcock’s masterpiece Side Effects also has an unexpected shift in allegiance and empathy early in the movie which slightly confoundingly should keep you on your toes in terms of character motivations and veiled intentions, the ability to be kept guessing at where the film will go next is one of its most compelling qualities. From destabilised establishing shots and unconventional focus decisions the film is invested with a nervous, jittery infrastructure, textured with Thomas Newman’s unobstrusive, seething score. Supporting player Ann Dowd who rose to attention in last years Compliance superbly sketches out her character as Martin’s mother in an economic half-dozen scenes, she looks to be joining the matriarchy of terrific middle-aged actresses who actually look like normal people rather that perfectly sculpted Hollywood stars, alongside the likes of Patricia Clarkson, Margo Martindale and Kathy Bates. Simply put this is another great thriller from Soderbergh, a film which feels very current and contemporary on a sequence of levels,with a solid cast, discrete but excellent direction – just what the doctor ordered.
Under his long utilised pseudonyms Peter George (cinematographer) and Mary Ann Bernard (editor) the man was born to make movies, mastering the core essential functions of the profession as he shifts from one genre to the next with a dexterous amd almost effortless skill, the dude can make you sick with envy. Sure some of them have been more successful than others in both the entertainment and box office areas but he consistently delivers compelling fare, not necessarily clustering to a repetitive miasma of themes or obsessions but certainly adhering to a consistent cinematic style, not just in his use of filters and cool (as in temperature, not street-cred)cinematography but also how he breaks down and covers scenes, every composition and cut is there for a reason yet it doesn’t yell or draw attention to the growling engine throbbing beneath the chassis. If I’m honest I have found his more ‘arty’ material difficult to enjoy, I don’t wish to sound like a philistine as I think I’ve proved by the breadth of material that I review here that I’m not exactly hostile to movies which employ divergent narrative patterns or obtuse plotting, or movies which portray less formal ‘mainstream’ treatments of themes or subjects, but the likes of Bubble or Full Frontal just did not connect in the way that simply, commercially attuned and ‘clear’ fare such as Erin Brockovich, the Ocean Movies or even last year’s Haywire managed. If we’re going to opt for a top five, and I guess now is the best chance we’ll ever have if his retirement is permanent, then I’ll have to opt for Kafka (which is also getting a restoration next year with reinstated excised scenes, plenty of featurettes and a digital scrub) Solaris (which he has kinda disowned as a failure but I still like it as a rare moment of moody, cerebral US SF), the first Oceans Eleven, Out Of Sight and Haywire, I also liked The Underneath, The Limey and the Che duo. So here is a little round up of the Soderbergh’s we’ve covered on the Menagerie, a not insignificant parade of movies over the past five years, I think if permanent this is a real loss to the art form, like Ahnoldt we can only hope that he’ll be back…..