starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum
screenplay by Scott Z. Burns
directed by Steven Soderbergh
by Angelo Muredda Whatever you may think of the distinctive yellow patina that creeps across his filmography, Steven Soderbergh is something of a chameleon artist, prone to the compulsive shape-shifting that's led some to mischaracterize commercial work like the Ocean's series as mere Hollywood capital to be cashed in on ambitious curios like Bubble. If anything, it's the Ocean's movies that most bear his signature in their attention to complex systems run amok and their indulgence of postmodern genre pastiche, which recur in projects as disparate as Haywire and Magic Mike. Both tendencies are in full force in psycho-thriller Side Effects, ostensibly the last of Soderbergh's theatrical releases and in many ways the most quintessentially Soderberghian despite its impersonal subject. It's an unusual swan song but perhaps the ideal one for a director who's always revealed himself in his formalist rigor, the conspicuous act of emptying out his idiosyncrasies into preexisting generic containers--in this case, half-a-dozen of them.
Written by Scott Z. Burns, of Soderbergh's The Informant! and Contagion, Side Effects is a difficult film to parse without giving the trick away, and as with the majority of Soderbergh's formal exercises, the trick is half the story. We open with a mystery, easing into a slow tracking shot through a New York apartment that's tastefully arranged save for the spots of blood that lead to the kitchen. From there, we turn back three months to meet Emily (Rooney Mara), a young bride waiting on finance-guru husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to finish his prison term for insider trading. The stress of losing and regaining Martin triggers Emily's long-dormant depression, causing blackouts and apparent suicide attempts that put her in the employ of psychotherapist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), the sort of high-rolling doctor who's all too happy to sidle up to pharmaceutical lobbyists like Emily's former therapist (Catherine Zeta-Jones). What starts as a fairly routine, even refreshingly straightforward melodrama about mental illness rapidly mutates into something else as Emily falls prey to her miracle drug's titular side effects and we circle back to the opening shot.
Mileage will vary over how far the spectator is willing to go with the movie's increasingly absurd plot machinations, but there's no denying that the gambit is built into the conceit of a film that's ultimately about its own ability to cast off its skin and transform itself several times over. The biggest surprise here is that the transformations are so engaging, with each one hinging on a vertiginous moment in which we have to refamiliarize ourselves with what we're watching. There's an airlessness to Soderbergh's weaker experiments that turns them into homework--even a bona fide hit like Magic Mike starts to feel dutiful when it lapses into its moralistic B-plot about the fresh-faced bad seed in the male stripper business. Not so here. The early passages where Emily's medical regimen distorts her perception is masterful phenomenological horror with an unmentionable twist. Under the usual Peter Andrews guise, DP Soderbergh gets a perverse kick out of rendering Mara's emerald dolls' eyes and lily-white skin as alien features that begin to seem equally strange to herself, glimpsed in their uncanny familiarity through a number of funhouse mirrors. The subsequent shifts to a procedural set in the spacious offices of Big Pharma and to a conspiracy thriller about an unreliable defendant who turns her legal defenders into patsies are just as enjoyable, albeit as kitsch, anchored nicely by Law's twitchy performance as a Hitchcockian wrong-man in the modern world, the sort of role you'd expect to see Michael Douglas play.
The spectre of Douglas, soon to star as Liberace in the director's first post-theatrical project, rears its head in a more profound way in the less impressive closing reel, and not just because Side Effects cedes so much time to Jones, Douglas's real-life spouse, the weak link in an otherwise strong ensemble. To anyone who hasn't read Soderbergh's recent VULTURE interview about the pleasures of Fatal Attraction, the script's final descent into Adrian Lyne country is a surprise, but unlike the other twists, it's a mixed success. A late confrontation between a pair of mutually backstabbing fair-weather lesbians is staged with all the finesse of George Clooney's clunky takedown of Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton, itself a Soderbergh homage counting on our familiarity with Clooney's Danny Ocean cool to make even a modicum of sense. That roughly the same two-hander is repeated moments later with a different set of players suggests there's a neat dramaturgical geometry at work here, but the muted register doesn't do this overwhelmingly hammy material any favours. While I wouldn't go so far as to call Side Effects's closing pair of hallway showdowns--bathed, as usual, in mustard--a reverse hat-tip to Tony Gilroy's, they are further proof that Soderbergh's minimalist register doesn't jive with every genre: Sometimes a grandstanding climax that ends in a snake's just comeuppance deserves to be played as pulp, not jazz.
There's also the matter of what, exactly, Burns's script is trying to say, not just about the mendacious nature of young women but also about the malleability of the mentally ill. As in Contagion, which goes on to paint Gwyneth Paltrow's adulterous wife as Typhoid Mary long after her skull is cracked open in the name of science, there's no excusing the misogyny imbedded in the premise. Yet Soderbergh's ambitious genre mimesis throughout suggests another, more interesting reading: that although women and depressives might well be liars and cheats, so too are filmmakers, none more so than the director himself--the only person truly responsible for the blood trail in the apartment, if you think about it. That isn't exactly an ethical message, though it seems a fitting note to end on for a filmmaker who's always been drawn to stories about con men, and whose greatest aesthetic touch has been to pull off his formal cons alongside them.