REVIEW: ‘Side Effects’: a Fitting Goodbye for a Capricious Maestro
I don’t follow news about development deals and productions that closely, which means that more often than not I hear about films the same way non-filmmakers do: by trailers and adverts when they are about to come out. Still, I feel indignant that I only stumbled on Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects by accident yesterday when I was looking to see if there was anything worth catching at the Arclight Hollywood during this dismal time of year for the movies.
True, I haven’t been to the cinema in a few weeks because I’ve seen almost all of the Oscar contenders (I still can’t bring myself to see Lincoln —some strange block, there) and as I’ve said before, this is the season when theater owners stand outside the studios clanging bells and crying, “Bring out yer dead!” Regardless, I feel I should have heard something about Side Effects, some pop-up ad online, anything. But I didn’t.
Now that I think about it, the only time I might have paid attention is when I saw Rooney Mara’s face on the cover of American Vogue at the supermarket the past few weeks and thought, Hmmm, she must have a film coming out. I wonder what it is. Probably going to be interesting.
The problem is, even if I were more of a fashionista than I am, I would never pick up American Vogue. Well, maybe if I were a woman and had time to kill at the beauty parlor. Those covers alone are so fucking dull. Still. After decades and decades of dull covers. It’s not for a lack of creativity at Condé Nast. It’s because that’s what the American market wants. Still.
I’d like to find out the distribution history about Side Effects because this film is far from dead. In fact, had it been released a few months ago, I would think it could have been eligible for a Best Actress nod for Rooney Mara and perhaps Best Original Screenplay for Scott Burns (Contagion, The Informant!). I mean, if Gus Van Sant’s similarly themed bad-corporation-with-a-twist Promised Land was bandied about for consideration… okay, I shall desist from trying to figure out what personality disorder lies beneath marketing and distribution.
Burns has written a taut, twisted script with a refreshingly original theme that kept me engaged throughout. Anyone who not only quotes Rollo May (“Depression is the inability to construct the future”) but weaves it into the premise of the film would have my instant vote over the likes of Tarantino.
Nevertheless, there were a few judders here and there in the dialogue, which are actually awkward line delivery on the part of the erratic Jude Law, who cannot seem to maintain consistency of character from one day to the next, a major problem for a film actor, and the unwatchable Botoxed pretention of Catherine Zeta-Jones, the only actor I can think of other than Sally Kellerman who can make medical speak sound like a voice over for a deluxe Belgian cocoa commercial. Except Kellerman is a joy to watch. I just want Zeta-Jones to leave the screen as soon as possible, and break a heel on the way out.
My other issue with Law in general is he never seems to commit himself to a role completely, to throw himself into the character. Given the considerable amount of duress the psychiatrist he plays in Side Effects, Dr. Jonathan Banks, suffers in the second act, you would think that he would nearly come undone, British reserve or not, rather than rely on the fact his facial hair is longer than in previous scenes, implying unkemptness owing to stress. As Dorothy Parker said about Katherine Hepburn, Law “runs the gamut of emotions from A to B,” and that is doubly unfortunate when you happen to be facing off against the delightful virago that is Rooney Mara.
If I loved Mara in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, then I’m now composing passionate sonnets with a swan-feather quill dipped in my own blood. That is as unseemly as I’m going to get with the gushing. I am a Ghey after all.
Mara plays a severely depressed woman, Emily Taylor, who was kicked over the edge when her husband (Channing Tatum) was incarcerated for insider trading. Law plays the shrink who prescribes her medication that has disastrous consequences. Beyond that brief summary I cannot go because this is a suspense thriller and this review would become a minefield of spoiler alerts, and that would be unfair. If at all possible, you should go into this movie with little knowledge of what is likely to happen.
This is a film firmly for The New Yorker crowd, the sort, like me, who reads pop-science guru Malcolm Gladwell, the aforementioned 70s psychologist Rollo May and lengthy articles about pharmaceutical scandals. There is even a nod to Gladwell in a medium close up of Jude Law in his office, with most of the author’s books stacked neatly behind him over his right shoulder.
Burns was originally supposed to direct this, but couldn’t get it made. He stepped aside when Soderbergh needed a worthy swan song as his last feature before he took early retirement. Having seen Soderbergh quit the business before, right at the start of his brilliant career, I have a feeling this is going to be an on-again, off-again retirement much like Barbra Streisand’s. Yes, directing is exhausting, but the set is also an addictive place to be, and without ever having met him, my quack analysis of Soderbergh he has something of a compulsive personality (anyone seen his delirious autobiographical Schizopolis?). Let’s see. If Side Effects is his last feature film—I’m reading online that he will be directing live theater, starting with a play written by Burns about the Columbine massacre—then he is going out not so much with a whimper than with a graceful bow.
Thank you, maestro, for some amazing work, for resisting crap as best you could under the circumstances.
I generally like to give constructive criticism to fellow filmmakers in my reviews. I imagine that I’m sitting there face to face with them in a production or script meeting giving notes. That’s hard to do when there’s no point because the filmmaker in question won’t be making any more films. Yeah, well.
There’s much I have admired about Soderbergh. Even his weaker efforts, specifically Che Parts 1 and 2, stumbled because they were simply too ambitious, and I excuse much when the fault is well-intentioned ambition. Most of all, I like the fact he shoots—sorry, shot, past tense—his own films, under the name Peter Andrews. And edits them as well, as Mary Ann Bernard. There is something quirky about his directing, cinematography and editing in his non-super-commercial work that I can’t quite put my finger on, which is a dangerous limb for me to go out on. It’s a pacing thing, a certain cadence. Some scenes feel rushed and sloppy, others as composed and meticulous as Stanley Kubrick. It’s not schizophrenic—that would be a misuse of the term—it’s mania in the bipolar sense.
I appreciate and am inspired by the fact Soderbergh seems to be allergic to the over-the-shoulder shot, which normally would be rife in a film that so heavily features dialogue between two characters. He simply cuts in between individual close ups that are often artfully composed and beautifully lit, and rarely the same setup twice. Then other times they are not artfully composed and beautifully lit; it feels like the shot is grabbed on the fly. I also love his use of low angles, particularly in the first act of Side Effects, before it becomes an entirely different film than the one you assume you’re watching. It creates a dizzying effect that implies vertigo, or the brink of suicide. Clever.
This is Rooney Mara’s film entirely, and she carries it with the grace and dexterity of a great prima ballerina whose performance is remembered decades after she has left the stage. Her strength is such that she even manages to hold up Jude Law’s clumsiness and woodenness—when they are onscreen together, it’s glaring that his talent is inversely proportionate to hers. Still, she carries him, with that steely resolve that is innate in her features. As much as I find the word ‘changeling’ creepy and inappropriate in most instances, it is being bandied about a lot with regard to Mara, and I have to admit it is fitting: She has a sprite-like quality that evokes the feeling that she’s not one of us, but supernatural.
It is probably also the word most suitable for Soderbergh himself, if you look at the breadth and diversity of his career. I can only say I hope he isn’t serious with this retirement thing, and that it’s just a well-earned hiatus for a master with an enviable work ethic.