Soderbergh Goes Out On A High Note

Director Steven Soderbergh has insisted that “Side Effects” is his last foray on to the big screen. He’s been adamant in his plans to move on to stage work and writing and pretty much anything but film. And that’s his right. But screens won’t be quite as luminous without him behind the camera, nor will the filmmaking community be able to replace a voice as unique as his. In a strange way, he’s getting to read his own cinematic obituary by leaving on his own terms, and I can’t fault him for wanting to reflect on his own career, whether it’s temporary or permanent leave of absense. I haven’t enjoyed all of his films – “Ocean’s Thirteen” immediately comes to mind – and some I simply haven’t seen. But the ones I have experienced, good or bad, have each left an imprint on me, which is something I can’t say of most filmmakers. And “Side Effects” is no exception. It has “minor classic” written all over it.

In reteaming with his “Contagion” scripter, Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh has picked up where that film left off. No, this one isn’t quite as bleak or as haunting, but it latches on to its audience just as tightly. Its labyrinthian narrative is kind of disturbing, kind of trashy, and kind of ingenius. It wrests a variety of emotions from its audience, sometimes at the same time, and it’s probably as close to a filmic rollercoaster as one can get with zero action scenes.

I’m loath to spoil any of the story, so allow me to keep the groundwork as bare bones as possible. Rooney Mara plays a clinically depressed, suicidal 28 year-old, Emily, whose husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), has just been released from prison on a four-year insider trading conviction. Jude Law – essentially the star of the film – plays Emily’s current psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks, while Catherine Zeta-Jones is on hand as her former psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert. Banks, in the midst of personal and professional criticism of his workload, cycles Emily through a variety of anti-depressants, each one with unwanted consequences. Just when he thinks he’s found the right one, things go all wrong and both doctor and patient have to answer for their sins.

The film puts us through the paces, expertly subjecting us to a kind of placebo effect in which we’re sure of the information we’re being given when we absolutely shouldn’t be. Halfway through the film, I was convinced that the narrative had become unnecessarily exploitative of mental illness and borderline preachy. Twenty minutes later I felt differently, and by Act III my expectations had once again been confounded.

Soderbergh has long served as his own cinematographer – an increasingly rare feat in Hollywood – and his work here is assured as ever. He’s made the strongest argument of anyone for digital video and “Side Effects” often looks stunning. The opening and closing shots serve as vague but effective callbacks to Francis Ford Coppola’s “Koyaanisqatsi” (which makes sense as Soderbergh was involved with one of its sequels), signifying the warped view of humanity that the film portends. Or is it humanity itself that’s warped? When two of the lead actors take turns leaning in towards the camera near the end of the film, from out-of-focus to in-focus, it’s as if Soderbergh is subtly calling attention to his own visual palette – stamping the picture with a well-earned “I was here.”

If “Side Effects” is indeed Steven Soderbergh’s big screen curtain call, he’s ended his filmmaking career on a magnificent run. In the last seventeen months, he’s given us four exceptional films – “Contagion,” “Haywire,” “Magic Mike,” and finally, “Side Effects” – and with just one TV film left in the pipeline (an HBO Liberace biopic starring Michael Douglas), he’s decided to call it a day. If he never returns to the medium that birthed him creatively, it’ll be a definite loss for moviegoers. And although there might be an expiration date on his career, his work will endure. And that’s all anyone could ever hope for.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: February 8, 2013
Studio: Open Road Films
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Screenwriter: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum
MPAA Rating: R (for sexuality, nudity, violence and language)