His 25th theatrical feature in just 24 years behind the camera, Side Effects is supposedly Steven Soderbergh’s “final” film. The big-brained auteur has been staggeringly prolific as of late, making a movie every few months since he discovered digital video, experimenting with form and technique to his heart’s content. Reports of Soderbergh’s self-imposed “retirement” at the age of 50 have been rampant in the press, but those of us who value the filmmaker’s restless, inquisitive spirit wonder how long he will be able to keep himself out of the game.
Side Effects is not a good Soderbergh film, and if anything it reeks of this singular talent’s approach to movies as a treadmill, setting formal challenges for himself and grinding them out on a workmanlike basis, more problem-solver than director. A recession drama from the point of view of a porn star? (The Girlfriend Experience) Check. A muckracking expose shot and scored like a ‘60s Blake Edwards comedy with kazoo music? (The Informant!) Check. Spalding Gray in his own words, a low-rent DTV thriller starring MMA fighter Gina Carano, and a broadly entertaining summer movie about Channing Tatum’s storied past as a male stripper? Yes, yes, yes. Funny thing is those were all terrific films. But this is hardly the note I wanted to see Soderbergh go out on.
Written by his frequent collaborator (and everything in Steven Soderbergh’s universe seems to be frequent) Scott Z. Burns, Side Effects begins as a bruising interrogation of the pharmaceutical industry before taking a sharp left hairpin turn into abject stupidity. It’s the kind of glossy hokum that, in the ‘90s, would have starred Ashley Judd; in the ‘80s, Michael Douglas. Where’s Adrian Lyne when you need him?
Rooney Mara, who seems to have cornered the market on mentally unstable sex kittens after headlining David Fincher’s entirely unnecessary The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake, stars as a clinically depressed housewife eagerly awaiting her stockbroker husband’s return from prison on insider trading charges (Tatum again). She cries every day and attempts suicide a couple of times, until her overworked shrink (Jude Law) suggests Ablixa, a so-called miracle anti-depressant with uncharted side effects, hence the title.
Much ado has been made of the movie’s surprise twist that angles for Psycho proportions, and the dopey pre-release hoo-hah plays up our Internet culture’s aversion to anything remotely spoilerific. (“Nobody will be admitted into the auditorium after the film begins.” Thanks, Alfred.) But the problem is that after a promising setup, Side Effects abruptly abandons the timely Big Pharma subject matter and settles into the well-worn rut of a Reagan-era routine sex thriller. Soderbergh freely admits that his cinematic touchstones here were Jagged Edge and Fatal Attraction. Having grown up on that crap, I wish he’d aimed higher.
The casting is also problematic. Law—who managed to be even more evil than a virus that wiped out most of humanity in Contagion, Soderbergh and Burns’ most recent collaboration—stars here in the put-upon, threatened-white-guy-in-a-suit role that Michael Douglas once built a career around. Law doesn’t have Douglas’ vulnerability, and mostly comes off as a smarmy dick. He’s done some exemplary supporting character work in the past, but Chris Rock was right: Jude Law is not a movie star. If Douglas had played the lead, we would have rooted for him, and he probably would’ve gotten laid a lot more often.
I suppose Mara does her best in a role that doesn’t make much sense, throwing herself into emotional extremes even though the movie seldom plays fair and requires her to act the shit out of scenes that we later find out never actually happened. She’s such a compact, achingly vulnerable screen presence, I’m not sure filmmakers have figured out what to do with her just yet.
Soderbergh’s dry, analytical sensibility is all wrong for Burns’ junk-food screenplay. Whereas in the past, his clinical remove turned the lowbrow Haywire into a weirdo art film, here he’s just mimicking the work of lesser directors, and too self-conscious to follow the fill tilt-boogie of Burns’ more ludicrous, inherently campy plot reveals. (There’s a gonzo lesbian subplot that Brian DePalma would’ve gone to town with, but Soderbergh’s tongue has yet to find his cheek. He’s too uptight a dude to be remaking Wild Things.)
Side Effects is just a clanging bad match between the filmmaker and the material. The screenplay presents problems that can’t be solved by one of the best problem-solvers in the business, and it’s a sorry farewell for such a fiendish workhorse who made my job a lot more pleasurable over these past dozen or so years.