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by George Sax
Many years ago, when he was still a student at the University at Buffalo, and before he became a prominent American novelist and critic, Charles Baxter once mused about the possibly limited shelf life of film directors. Unlike musicians he said, Toscanini or Casals, for example, or painters such as Picasso and Manet, filmmakers’ work seem to tail off in quality and quantity as they aged. The careers of such luminaries as John Ford and Howard Hawks and the Frenchman Marcel Carné seemed to raise this question.
Whether or not Baxter was on to something, that’s not going to happen to Steven Soderbergh, thank you kindly. The prolific (26 films in 24 years), adventurous director has announced his retirement from movie making with the release of his latest picture, Side Effects.
In a long Q-and-A interview in New York, Soderbergh has claimed he wants to try other things: painting, and perhaps theater and television, although why he can’t pursue these without publicly and definitively ending his work in the movies isn’t explained.
Whatever the duration of this retirement, he is by no means leaving behind a record of commercial failure. His last movie, Magic Mike, cost $7 million and grossed $167 million internationally. And before that there was the Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen franchise and Erin Brokovich. All along, Soderbergh has periodically taken leave of the industry’s beaten path to do different, often quirky, usually little projects, movies like Bubble, a scriptless improvisation. He’s been uncommonly lucky, as well as gifted and successful enough to get away with this, but evidently it’s not enough anymore. There have been disappointments and disagreements with Hollywood powers. (Side Effects is being distributed by an obscure boutique company.)
His new and supposedly last movie is typical of Soderbergh’s varied output in significant ways. It’s written by Scott Z. Burns, who scripted Contagion for the director, and this movie has the kind of sharply realized, sometimes stunning craftsmanship that has consistently marked his pictures. The material has obviously been shaped by Soderbergh. There’s an irony attached to his retirement announcement: A probing dynamic sensibility is evident in Side Effects even as the man who possesses it says he’s done with all that.
The movie is a densely clever mystery with unusual psychological and social notes. It doesn’t really go in the direction it seems at first to promise it will. That’s part of its cleverness, and also its limitations. Side Effects comes a little too close to outsmarting itself. Some people may feel it crosses that line.
Emily (Rooney Mara) is the 28-year-old wife of Martin (Channing Tatum), a once high-flying aspirant to Wall Street royalty. He’s run afoul of the feds with an insider trading scheme and is serving out a four-year sentence. Exiled from their gilded life on a Connecticut estate, she’s working in a New York ad agency and anxiously awaiting his imminent release. (Their one-bedroom apartment would make many Manhattanites envious, and Emily’s position at a fairly large company after working as a bartender before her marriage is certainly fortunate, but never mind.) She’s not anxious as in eager, but anxious as in a bad way: depressed, nervous, and pessimistic, even after Martin returns. When Emily has a very problematic and troubling car accident, a concerned emergency room psychiatrist, Jeffrey Banks (Jude Law), agrees to see her privately. When she subsequently asks about a new (and imaginary) anti-depressant, Ablixa, he easily agrees to prescribe it for her, with disastrously destructive consequences.
Banks is about to begin working as a paid ($50,000) consultant in a drug trial and he’s also an aspirant, of sorts. When he accepts a drug company pen from a colleague (Catherine Zeta-Jones), it’s a small symbol of his need for higher income and his acquiescence in the pharmaceutical industrial complex. He gives his wife (Vanessa Shaw) an anti-anxiety pill and tells her “it’s easier to be who you are” if you use them. But Banks is inadequately aware of Ablixa’s potential for unwanted effects, and he and other pay a high price for this ignorance.
Up to this point, Side Effects seems to have a satirical, mildly skeptical take on its social milieu and characters. Everybody Emily and Banks come into contact with seems to be using mood-modifying drugs. Banks’s comment to his wife is reminiscent of Brown University psychiatrist Peter Kramer’s unwise and utopian effusions about them in his 1997 book, Listening to Your Prozac.
But there’s a rather sudden turn in the movie and it becomes a tense, Hitchcockian mystery, with Banks as the fall guy in a criminal conspiracy he has to work his way out of. There’s a measure of bait-and-switch in this, and the picture goes to implausible, eventually preposterous lengths to keep the suspense tight. Yet Soderbergh’s direction is so impressive he just about consistently keeps his film’s momentum and mood, as it approaches its witty resolution. At the end, it doubles down on the drolly teasing take on all the pill-popping that threaded through the first half.
Side Effects isn’t a seamless or consistent work, but if it’s really Soderbergh’s last—at this point a dubious proposition—it’s an entertaining punctuation to his career.
Watch the trailer for Side Effects
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