Director: Steven Soderbergh
Note: Despite striving to discuss Side Effects without delving into any heavy plot mechanics, this review speaks of the film’s third act in some specific, possibly-less-coy-than-you’d-care-for-having-not-seen-the-film-and-hoping-for-a-pure-experience terms.
As a younger, more impressionable man with greater levels of tolerance for the philosophical musings of elders, I had been told that there are two sides to every story. Personally, it’s always been sort of a curious idea — true to life, but rarely applicable in a dissection of art. While I’d hope this doesn’t inure me to a good twist (or any form of “shocking turn”) in the work I encounter, the reversing of narrative parameters must not only feel in line with the work at hand, narratively-speaking, but also function as a logical creative extension of, in this case, what the director and screenwriter have been devising. In almost all cases, then, there’s only one side to the creative process that’s going to “work.”
Call these feelings the basis for an unnecessary bias, if you’d like, but a still-present resistance to that line of thinking could account for my own confused, increasingly sour reaction to Side Effects, the (as of now) final theatrical feature from Steven Soderbergh, as well as his third collaboration with Scott Z. Burns (following 2011‘s Contagion and 2009‘s The Informant!). As a film which runs somewhere in the area of 105 minutes (give or take whatever is necessary for end credits), the director and screenwriter come to spend the first two-thirds composing in joyous harmony, finding rhyme and reason with one another to breed some of the finest work either could ever claim to own.
As rarely as I throw out such plaudits, there’s a period where it truly feels as if Soderbergh and Burns managed to pull off an all-timer. It’s, at once, within said period that Side Effects’ throughline offers pleasure in its certain familiarity, a storytelling gambit that sees two primary things unfold: what we’ve been led to follow keeps viewers on their toes to a degree that’s fairly (even scarily) plausible under some sort of “realistic” lens, but with action straightforward enough to allow room for the twists that are, otherwise, requisite of the genre. Beautiful on the surface, and not without its deeper cinematic pleasure on the inside — everything you’d want from a thriller.
Then things begin to change key. Slowly but surely, as if we were powerlessly watching someone losing their grip on a box of expensive China, the turn becomes increasingly convoluted, consistently dumber, and, ultimately, sort of a big shrug. If everything which proceeded this point had been standard (even simply “okay”) fluff, the wackiness into which it delves might have worked; it’d at least spice up the proceedings. What you need to ask is if Side Effects wasn’t already smarter than that. I damn well think the picture was.
With an oddly disquieting commencement shot — which, honest to God, is nothing but the strangest homage to Rosemary’s Baby — and some expository (though still completely enjoyable) introductions, we’re plunged into the life of Emily (Rooney Mara), a young, troubled woman whose struggle with depression reaches dangerous heights upon the arrival of her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), himself recently released from a jail sentence incurred by insider trading. Her new psychiatrist (Jude Law) prescribes a popular anti-depressant. Things are going just fine for the time being, but, despite alleviating Emily’s pain, they begin to induce some (ahem) curious side effects — the most notable being murder.
If one were to find themselves at Side Effects purely on the basis of Steven Soderbergh’s name, they’ll get more than their money’s worth. Although it’d be somewhat fair (and not at all incorrect) to just label his work “confident” and move on with your day, it’s both expected and far too simplistic, perhaps even a little dismissive of his exertion. Before things crumble, this is easily among the most assured and taut things he’s ever done with a camera; there’s so much to praise that finding an entry point into the discussion is a bit hard, except to say that being his own cinematographer (aka Peter Andrews) and editor (aka Mary Ann Bernard) has, for years, given him as full an auteur status as any filmmaker working in Hollywood has a right to.
No matter what else the collaborators are up to, you’re either on his wavelength or not by this point. Like his more recent work shot with RED cameras — Haywire, in particular — Side Effects employs this brilliantly ethereal glow of facileness; not for nothing that it looks pretty, but the scheme has greater weight to its name by now. It’s not only the yellow tint of interiors or muted grays of exteriors that lend scenes boosts of energy, or even choosing an interesting angle; for one thing, chalk it up to his brilliant emphasis on reaction shots instead of, far more conventionally, faces delivering dialogue, or ways he can make the racking of a camera / uses of shallow focus feel entirely relevant to greater narrative intention.
It’s this scary-sure level of craft which leaves me to wonder why someone with his proclivity for the right material — moreover, his proclivity for the right material that doesn’t immediately strike you as “the right material” — didn’t look at Side Effects’ final 40 pages and just call for a massive rewrite.
Being a twisty tale, you can guess it all goes down unexpected paths by the time its final third heats up — which is fine by itself. The problem is a strange parlor trick Burns tried to work into his screenplay, something that, instead, makes way for a reveal that sees Side Effects rapidly degrade in artistic intent right before our very eyes. I’ll be coy here: what ensues isn’t so much an instance of having the rug pulled out as it is, say, discovering that the presented picture of a beautiful rug never existed, leaving an audience with little but an artist-approved, water-warped floorboard beneath their feet. And when everything that’s supposed to come before does, in fact, come before, and when everything that’s supposed to unfold does, sadly, unfold, those who appreciate general consistency might, like myself, also and more pertinently understand it as the transformation from a deliberate — also, in shades, emotionally damaging — thriller-drama into a late-night Cinemax program that fills one with dread at the thought of somebody entering your room at an inopportune moment.
It leaves me so flustered that I come to forget how all-around exemplary the work of Side Effects’ leads really can be. Burns’ screenplay oscillates the lead position from Mara to Law; notwithstanding that this is a precarious and, eventually, poor choice in structure, it’s only a greater demonstration of their individual abilities to play upon audience perception and shades sympathy from scene to scene. While Tatum’s role is minor and, frankly, a little too “Channing Tatum” to feel like notable work, an innate likability in his presence, again, brings dimension to what’s been scripted on the page — maybe a better example of wise casting than notable construction. It’s hard to properly comment upon the work of one Catherine Zeta-Jones, seeing as her part in the proceedings’ (for lack of a more suitable term) greater machinations are too indebted to the major reveals. Let’s just say it’s nice to have a consistent wild card to throw things off balance, be it with a strange line reading or devious facial tic.
Like Soderbergh, I’m left to question if their efforts were, ultimately, for naught. Let’s play the auteurist card for another second and pretend Side Effects was a second stab at what was accomplished in Haywire — i.e., exploit and celebrate the conventions (or inhibitions) which so often acts as a stigma for a specific genre — and, just like that, you feel a little better about what came out in the end. Given the exemplary turn of his own, Steven Soderbergh can walk away relatively unscathed.
As a parting gift, though, this one kind of stings.
Side Effects will be released on Friday, February 8th.
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