Is there such a thing as a Steven Soderbergh fan? Not simply an admirer of his directing chops mind you, I’m talking about someone who actively cites Soderbergh as a directorial favorite much in the same way someone could casually cite directors like The Coen Brothers who effortlessly slip between genres while injecting a sense of authorship to create work we continually anticipate. I think for Soderbergh the answer is a cautious no, but he remains someone who has proven himself to be a (critically and somewhat financially) bankable chameleon with weighty thinking-man’s films like Traffic or his two-part biopic of Che Guevara, micro-budget explorations like Bubble or The Girlfriend Experience, and all-star popcorn fare with the Ocean’s trilogy. A friend of mine was trying to be funny when she described him as “too random for fandom,” but I think there is some truth in that. His sense of style seems to be that he has no set style, and this isn’t a matter of knowing when to be showy when he needs to be showy and vice versa, it’s a matter of bringing a bland sensibility to the table that inhibits Soderbergh from fundamentally rising above the experimental genre shifts between his films.
Coming up on his self-imposed sabbatical from filmmaking and taking into consideration his previous few films he is no longer caught in the one-for-them / one-for-me mentality between projects, and we must ask ourselves whether that is beneficial to understanding his filmography or not. We must also ask ourselves what it means that a film like Side Effects is his last theatrical effort as a director and whether it reinforces the way in which his lack of style deflects attention away from himself and the impact of the films themselves.
Side Effects is a capricious and cluttered movie, but one that is designed to be that way. It’s the story of Emily (Rooney Mara), a clinically depressed New Yorker in her late twenties who tries to make ends meet as she waits for her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to get out of jail following an insider trading scandal that put him away for four years. Following the mounting pressure to get back to the high-living way things were with Martin before, she attempts to commit suicide by driving her car into a parking garage wall. After being evaluated by Dr. Jonathan Banks – a psychiatrist played by Jude Law – she agrees to see him a few times a week to get to the root of her problems. Emily is no stranger to depressive disorders, and has taken medication and been to therapists in the past. When Banks visits her previous shrink Dr. Erica Seibert – played by Catherine Zeta-Jones – he finds out Emily has some daddy issues and miscarried a child with Martin right before he went to jail. He initially gives her Zoloft, but when those and other meds don’t seem to help Banks offers to prescribe her a new experimental drug called Ablixa and Emily eagerly agrees to try out anything that could help. The situation with Emily and Dr. Banks spirals out of control from there.
To reveal any more would give away the knotty intricacies of the plot that don’t so much play out as twists but rather unravel themselves amongst the characters, instantaneously effecting their every decision. This could easily be written off as the “Rooney Mara goes crazy on prescription pills” movie, but it is better and more complicated than that. The problem is the way the movie shifts between what it wants to be without revealing its secrets. Is it a psychological thriller? Is it conspiracy theory suspense? Is it a courtroom drama? Is it an investigative procedural? It hints at every one of these tones and finally settles into one, and that’s when the film really works.
Its initial message is sometimes too on the nose – explicitly telling you at every turn that Big Pharma is bad – and that’s where it becomes overbearing. Tatum’s character grumbles “It’s these fucking pills!” a few times with other characters spelling out essentially the same thing. When it begins to weave its thriller angle away from any didacticism about shady prescription medication it clicks, and allows the audience to finally engage in the drama.
Just like her turn as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara is excellent because you equally believe her character’s vulnerability as well as her dark side – two character traits that you can truly see at work with one another throughout her entire performance. Also good – surprisingly – is Jude Law as the seemingly innocuous shrink whose life begins to spiral out of control because of his connection to Mara. His earnest befuddlement and obsessive search for the truth play well as a – dare I say – Hitchcockian character who is at first a tangential accessory to the proceedings and then eventually stumbles into a web of events larger than himself.
In the end the story all adds up a bit too easily, and to me there is a lingering sense of aloofness – an uneven sense that the subject matter, though done well, is somehow below Soderbergh and the movie star pals he blatantly assembled to help him try to get people in the seats. It seems both a personal exploration of genres, but also a superficial look at subjects that could have been more deftly examined by someone of Soderbergh’s feted caliber. He isn’t going out with a bang, but he isn’t going out with a whimper either – instead he goes out upholding the middling plainness that has defined one of the most inconsistent but interesting careers of any modern American filmmaker.