Is this it? Is this the final theatrical release for filmmaking maverick Steven Soderbergh? The man has been threatening to retire for the last couple of years, so at this point any such claims feel akin to crying wolf, but were he to fully cease making movies tomorrow, Side Effects is a reasonable enough film to end his career upon. (Behind the Candelabra, his Liberace biopic, will be his final final project, but you’ll only be able to watch on HBO.) Interestingly, it’s perhaps the least Soderberghish film he’s made since cranking his recent output into prolific overdrive; even when operating in realms beyond his comfort zone, Soderbergh’s films always feel like products of his vision, rather than someone else’s. He’s a singular talent.
So Side Effects reads as something of an outlier in his newer work. It’s Soderbergh, all right, and make no mistake– if any of this suggests an absence of the clinical, calculated veneer of cool he overlays upon each of his movies, then you’ll be delighted to learn that none of that is missing here. In fact, taken in tandem with Contagion, Side Effects feels right at home in his body of work, a medical drama but one of a different bent. Have you ever feared that drug manufacturers are simply out to get your money, fie upon the consequences of needlessly treating the more easily persuaded members of society? Have you ever suspected that there’s a great darkness beyond that veil of greed and needless consumerism? Side Effects might be your living nightmare, then.
Except when it isn’t. The film begins in earnest as a story of an estranged couple attempting to mend their marriage; he, Martin (Channing Tatum), is just getting out of prison after indulging in a pyramid scheme at his office, while she, Emily (Rooney Mara), is mightily struggling to get over the divide in their relationship and the downward spiral of her life. How to get over her deep-rooted despondency and anxiety? Pills, of course, lots of them, and eventually a new, shiny, untested one called Ablixa. Before long there’s a murder, and the blood’s on Emily’s hands, at which point Side Effects becomes a harsh indictment of pharmaceutical wrongdoing and the efforts of a doctor caught under a microscope of intense scrutiny to expose a conspiracy against him.
Soderbergh’s trying to have his cake and eat it, too, and for the most part he successfully stitches his portrait of a shattered couple together with his examination of medicated America. Side Effects splits its time between being primarily about the plight of Emily, long-suffering and clinically depressed, and Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), her psychiatrist and the subject of public and professional scrutiny after his patient’s outburst of somnambulant violence. All told, this is their film, and Soderbergh conducts an amusing game of their respective guilt; the finger remains pointed, firmly, at the manufacturers and pushers of Ablixa, but one has to wonder how much Emily and Johnathan are responsible for their respective miseries.
Eventually, Soderbergh dispels our curiosity by pulling back the curtain, and Side Effects deflates. It’s a slight collapse, mind, and everything leading into is fueled by the sort of delicious, lurid twists and shocking blood work one might find in a Brian De Palma film; this is Dressed to Kill and Sisters by way of Gregory Hoblit’s Primal Fear. That in and of itself is something of an oddity. Even when Soderbergh dabbles in genres and modes that are alien to him, his films never feel like they’re aping the styles of other filmmakers. Contagion might be an Outbreak riff, but it doesn’t have Wolfgang Petersen’s fingerprints on it. Here, Soderbergh’s cinema reads very unlike his own, and that might be an even greater surprise than seeing him try his hand at action in Haywire.
The greater problem, though, is that Side Effects ends far too pat and neatly. Not that Soderbergh is a stranger to positive endings or wrapping up his narratives in an orderly fashion, but one suspects that behind the camera he’s thinking less than flattering things about his audience. It’s a climax that verges on being intellectually insulting, and it only merely toes that line because of Soderbergh’s considered, deliberate approach as a filmmaker. A less skilled artist would have tripped and stumbled right over it, though perhaps that’s a small consolation; Soderbergh isn’t lesser. He’s Soderbergh. He’s a master filmmaker clothed in immense power.
None of this is to say that Side Effects doesn’t qualify as an effective thriller. But Soderbergh undermines himself somewhat by taking his film to the duplicitous heights he takes it to. Emily’s quest to assuage her spiritual melancholy and Johnathan’s mission to clear his name and redeem his tarnished reputation wind together in dizzying, vivid fashion; the film’s suspense elevates the more that they set out to achieve their own ends. Eventually the story becomes much more centered around Johnathan, who Law gets to play as the everyday hero one might find in the work of, say, Hitchcock. He’s having fun here, something of a relief in light of how unkindly the last few years of his career have treated him– but maybe that’s the Soderbergh effect.
Ms. Mara avails herself well, too, though she’s perhaps setting herself up to be typecast for life; the distance between Emily and Lisbeth Salander is slimmer than one might suspect at first blush. It’s easy to wonder if perhaps that’s Soderbergh’s intent in light of how much Side Effects draws so visibly from his influences and from other media, and that once more underscores the film’s most significant failing. That Side Effects feels like its own beast despite the presence of those outside sources speaks to his vitality as a filmmaker. Oddly, the movie leaves us with the thought that if it had originated from another director, it might have struck truer– but that’s what you get for establishing yourself as an irreplaceable, individual voice in the movie industry. Side Effects does stand out as a solid entry in Soderbergh’s filmography, and a serviceable goodbye, but it’s not the grand finale he– and his viewers– deserved. For that, we may have to turn to premium television.