Thursday, February 21, 2013

Pills and Thrills: Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects

Jude Law stars in Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects opens like a horror movie, with a tantalizingly eerie scene of bloodstains, and bloody footprints, on the floor of a New York apartment. While the audience is perched on the edge of their seats, waiting to find out what’s happened, the action flashes back to the events that brought us here: a young, would-be Master of the Universe (Channing Tatum, the smooth operator who was the central focus of Soderbergh’s previous film, Magic Mike) is released from prison after serving four years for insider trading, and is greeted by his mousy wife, Emily (Rooney Mara). Emily, who appears to be unmoored and suicidally depressed over the change in her family’s fortunes, begins seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law), and is put on a (fictional) new drug called Ablixa, whose manufacturers have a financial arrangement with the good doctor. (Basically, he’s trawling among his patient base, looking for willing guinea pigs.)

By the middle of the movie, we come full circle and find out how that apartment floor got so red and messy, and it’s a horrific event, all right. But although Side Effects is, in essence, a kind of murder mystery, the murder itself isn’t its main engine for generating suspense. It’s just the plot device needed to get the Law character in a position to worry about being professionally humiliated and discredited, to such a degree that it costs him everything: his reputation, his business (his partners are quick to dump him when things look bad), his income stream, even his marriage (to an expertly tart Vinessa Shaw). Part of what makes Side Effects such a modern American movie is that its hero, whose life never seems to be in danger, qualifies as being in dire peril because his career might be heading for the drain. 

Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999)
He seems meant to be something of a smug jackass, someone whose careless ethics, which don’t seem at all egregious by the current accepted standards of his colleagues, have set him up for a fall, and it must have tickled Soderbergh to cast the role with the same actor who played the unethical, conspiracy-mongering medical blogger in his clinical pandemic thriller, Contagion. Law the golden boythe object of beauty who played the man Oscar Wilde ruined himself over in Wilde and who made Matt Damon feel inadequate in The Talented Mr. Ripleyhas disappeared, and in his place is a beady-eyed, jabbering little fellow whose anxious self-interest sometimes makes him appear positively rodent-like. But the way this picture is set up, the audience doesn’t have to like Law; they only have to relate to his plight enough to fear for him, and with career jitters so much a part of the national mood, that all but takes care of itself. By contrast, Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns (who also wrote Contagion) don’t bother giving the audience any reason to care much about the character who ends up in a body bag. Consider the character’s career prospects, it’s practically a mercy killing anyway.

Side Effects is very much a Steven Soderbergh movie: smart and cerebral, and entertainingly so, though part of the tension it generates especially if you’ve seen other Soderbergh movies comes from watching it navigate the high wire, waiting to see if it slips and becomes so icily detached that it neglects to give you a reason for watching it. Happily, the plot keeps twisting, and the picture, which has a core of social satire related to the assumption that there isn’t any problem you shouldn’t be able to take a pill for, gets funnier and funnier as it picks up steam towards the finish line. It’s also small unlike the large-scale Contagion, which was both fascinating to watch unfold but also oddly chilly, with major characters disappearing and dying off with barely an acknowledgment of their passing, and the gears of the narrative clanking so loudly that it all but drowned out the dialogue. In the end, the picture was something very rarely seen in what pundits call “liberal Hollywood”: a big genre movie that, without any explicit speechmaking, added up to an argument in favor of the efficiency and importance of big government, so long as it’s run by intelligent people who believe in what they’re doing and are part of the reality-based community.

Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum in Side Effects
Side Effects is a true companion piece, in the sense that it’s implicitly critical of consumerist thinking and the unregulated free market, especially for the impact they have on a field, medical research, where money shouldn’t be an important factor in people’s decisions. What’s missing thank God is the big Oscar-bait speech that would be a big part of a movie like this if Sidney Lumet, say, had directed it. It’s easy to imagine that scene, with Law telling off the doctors at his disciplinary hearing, and then, probably, selling his Manhattan real estate and moving to Vermont to give aid and comfort to shell-shocked farmers who need to talk to a trained professional about how their foreclosures make them feel. Side Effects ends happily, with Law having successfully schemed his way back to professional respectability much the same way that Soderbergh, after becoming the poster boy for the indie film movement with sex, lies, and videotape, came back as a more confident director of commercial entertainments with Out of Sight after hitting the wall as a filmmaker with the noir remake The Underneath (which should have been called The Unnecessary).

If Soderbergh has ever been a career role model for young film artists, especially those who want to work in narrative movies on any kind of big scale, the man to watch may not have been the expert but callow young writer-director of sex, lies, and videotape but the not-so-young pro who devoted himself to seeing how much experimentation genre movies like Out Of Sight and The Limey (which, between them, are probably still the best run of his busy career) could hold, whole fending off jadedness by plowing what industry cred he’d built up on more esoteric projects, all of which were admirable in theory, and some of which, like Full Frontal, were just godawful as movies.

The critic David Thomson, a Soderbergh agnostic, has called Side Effects “an ugly mess, a rotten film,” and speculated that “some observers are being gentle with it because it may mark Steven Soderbergh’s retirement from directing pictures.” (Soderbergh announced, a few years ago, that after he finished his next movie, and, okay, this next movie he wanted to do and then one more after that and also his upcoming HBO film starring Michael Douglas as Liberace, which will reportedly debut on TV because the subject matter is “too gay” for a mainstream Hollywood feature film he’d be dropping out of the business, maybe to take up painting. After the predictable dismayed outcry over this, as if there were anything unnatural or surprising about a 50-year-old man with a restless curiosity wanting to try something else after doing the same thing for more than a quarter of a century, he backtracked a bit and said that maybe he was just taking a “hiatus.”) I think that Thomson may have it a bit wrong. The reviews of Side Effects have mostly been kind, all right, but I also detect a slight confusion over how small and modest the movie is, as if it were odd that the indie-film crusader of sex, lies, and videotape and the Oscar winner of Erin Brockovich and Traffic has chosen to go out this way, instead of arranging for something splashy.

A scene from Soderbergh's Che (2008)
If Soderbergh wanted to go out on an epic note if he weren’t just naturally proceeding from one thing to the next, and then out he should have announced his retirement after his two-part, four-and-a-half-hour Che, which despite its mysterious affectlessness, might have done better business if he had. I remember seeing and partly dozing through Che during its premiere New York engagement at the Ziegfeld Theater, a month or so after Barack Obama was elected President, and hearing some poor young fool sitting behind me tell another fool, “This kicks it off. This is how we celebrate the start of the revolution.” I suspect that Soderbergh’s truest expression of his feelings about Che Guevera as the symbolic intersection of “revolutionary” hopes and popular culture is the faded Che T-shirt worn by Luis Guzman in The Limey, in which he plays the sidekick to an aging British thug (Terence Stamp) who has come to Los Angeles seeking revenge on a sleazy Boomer music producer (Peter Fonda) who has made his fortune by packaging the pop music of the ‘60s to sell Boomer audiences digitally enhanced memories of the soundtracks to their sacred, idealistic youth.

The world of celebrity indie auteurs is more densely populated than it seemed in 1989, and Soderbergh no longer seems like a natural fit for the role of inspirational voice of a filmmaking generation: compared to mad dreamers like David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino, motor-mouthed self-promoters like Spike Lee and Oliver Stone, or even a humble scribe and Good Example like John Sayles (who stepped out of an old IWW poster with a camera slung o’er his shoulder), he’s too sane and self-effacing. But he’s done his part, and then some. In the unlikely event that Side Effects really is the last theatrical feature he ever directs, it’ll be a fitting capstone to a career whose true high points tended to be smaller, and less meretricious, than some of his big successes.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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