Sunday, February 24, 2013

Side Effects

On the off-chance that I actually do get to a movie theater and see a movie, I usually have high expectations for what gets my time and money. I maybe see two or three movies in the theater a year, so when I go, I want I want it to be worth my while. In other words, it takes a special movie made by a special filmmaker to get me out to the theater. I can think of no better dangling carrot to get me out to the theater than Side Effects, for it is being marketed as “Steven Soderbergh’s final film.” On the whole, I felt extremely satisfied by Side Effects and its slippery-slope of a narrative (brilliantly aided by Thomas Newman’s score, which reminded me of something out of one of Argento’s ‘70s films), but when I consider the film as Soderbergh’s last (and I certainly can’t be alone here), I cannot help but feel that even though a an appropriate encapsulation of the man’s career the last 10 years, it’s a tad underwhelming knowing that one of the great modern filmmakers consciously chose this as his swan song.

The performances are strong across the board (when was the last time Jude Law was this good?), especially Rooney Mara. Mara plays Emily Taylor — an extremely depressed woman who is reunited with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) after four years of being incarcerated for insider trading. Once she is reunited with her husband, the depression kicks in even stronger until she loses it one night and drives her car into the wall of her parking garage. At the hospital she is introduced to Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law) who agrees to let her go back home to Martin as long as she agrees to see him on a one-on-one basis. As Dr. Banks prescribes numerous proven anti-depressants for Emily, things only seem to get worse for her and Martin as the pills all have little-to-no effect on Emily. When Banks goes to see Emily’s previous psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones in one of those, “oh yeah, I forgot about her” kind of roles), she tells him about a new drug on the market, Ablixa, that has done wonders for her patients. Emily begins taking the Ablixa and seems to be better despite some odd sleepwalking episodes and concerns from Martin; however, Dr. Banks continues to prescribe her the medicine, which leads to some, uh, interesting events all involved.

Revealing anymore of the plot would be silly since most of the film’s pleasures are in how Soderbergh and screenwriter and Scott Z. Burns (who also collaborated with Soderbergh on The Informant! and Contagion) have a lot of fun in unraveling this tale and challenging the way we’re used to watching these kinds of movies. And by “these kinds of movies” I mean this: just look at the poster or watch the trailer. Everything about Side Effects suggests that it’s going to be nothing more than a film about depression, or a film about psychiatry, or a film about a couple that sues a doctor due to an experimental drug he prescribes. Nothing about the promotion of Side Effects could possibly prepare the viewer for what the film really is. It’s sneaky in the way that Soderberghian way that has kind of become a thing for him in films like Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, Haywire, and Magic Mike; all of those films (especially in how some of them were promoted) led potential viewers to assume things about them that simply weren’t true.

Once again Soderbergh shows that he’s also an ace cinematographer (under his usual pseudonym Peter Andrews — my favorite shot being of Mara pouring out some pills over the camera), and the editing and performances as well as the aforementioned score by Newman — which really lets us know that we’re on unstable ground — make the film good bordering on very good. It doesn’t live up to the task of being the so-called final film that the great director is leaving us with. But what could? It’s a helluva thing having that kind of millstone attached to it — I don’t know that anything Soderbergh could have done would have lived up to the hype of his shocking announcement — but Side Effects is more than up to the task of delivering as an engaging and surprising and really fun (as odd as it sounds) film experience; it seems appropriately of a piece — the final act of something that Soderbergh has been working on since Bubble — and kind of feels like a perfect encapsulation of what Soderbergh has been working on the last 10 years even if it seems unworthy of being the last thing we associate with this great, important filmmaker. 


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