Side Effects (2013)
Dir: Steven Soderbergh
Soderbergh is a master filmmaker in command of both its art and craft.Here he paints the background and foreground with élan. The background is familiar, that the drug industry is evil, that Wall Street is so rotten it cannot be fixed and that doctors are beholden to big pharma. In the hands of Mr Soderbergh this material is presented back to us with great restraint and respect. Most intriguingly in the foreground he creates a mosaic of characters and events that leave us stunned.This film entertains us at a much above average level, never spoon-feeding us.
Side Effects revolves around the life of Emily (Rooney Mara) whose husband Martin (the bodalicious Channing Tatum) plucked her from behind a Manhattan bar and got her addicted to the high life of a Wall Street whiz kid.Then one fine day her world crumbled and Martin landed up in jail for insider trading and Emily on the couch of a shrink (Catherine Zeta Jones as Dr. Victoria Siebert) fighting a depression that felt like poisonous clouds rolling in. We meet her as a complete wreck when Martin comes out of jail and as he tries to piece his life back together, he finds Emily falling apart even more, she is now suicidal.Enter a smart suave Manhattan high street shrink. Dr Jonathan Banks(Jude Law) is far too ambitious for his own good.He tries to help Emily but finds himself in the eye of a storm when things don’t go according to script.
Side Effects is deliciously bipolar, it morphs into a completely different film at the midway mark.Mr Soderbergh has a chameleon like ability to transform himself from art house auteur to blockbuster helmsman and here he stays within the idiom of a commercial film and yet changes his tone dramatically.He films his central characters intimately and in their transformation we understand how complex the human mind is and how manipulative can be our treatment of mental illness, of which we understand mighty little.I recently saw a TED talk where an expert described anti depressants as pouring a can of engine oil on the engine block when the car needs oil change.Some of it does finds it way to the right place in the brain but ultimately an understanding of depression as mere chemical imbalance in the brain is deeply flawed.
We see Dr. Banks slip a pill into the hands of his wife before a crucial job interview. He mouths lines like “Depression is the inability to imagine your future”. In Contagion Mr Soderbergh gave us a world fighting with a deadly virus, this time he places the malady in the deepest recesses of our brain.He shows us a pervasive pill popping culture and then swiftly turns the tables on us, lest we lull ourselves into believing that we are in control of our faculties.
There are some elements of the plot that do feel stretched but these do not detract from the fun.Rooney Mara is superb, here she is photographed a lot in closeups which makes her face even more interesting.Jude Law is fully challenged in playing Dr Banks and walks the tightrope well. Mr.Soderbergh may be falling in love with Channing Tatum a little, he had cast him last year in Magic Mike where he played a male stripper.Tatum as male stripper was an eventuality but that it happened in a Steven Soderbergh film is interesting. As Martin he is slightly miscast, for an insider trading jock he looks brawny, lifeless and somewhat stupid.Zeta Jones is another Soderbergh regular, here her severe look somewhat trumps her performance.
Mr. Soderbergh has said he may be retiring and Side Effects my be his last theatrical release.He has finished a TV movie Behind the Candelabra which premieres on HBO sometime this year.He burst onto the filmmaking scene with his Sex, Lies and Videotape becoming the instant poster boy for American indies.He continued to work as an art house auteur for a few years before changing track with Out of Time.He has directed the wildly successful franchise of Oceans 11,12 and 13 and won Oscar for Traffic, one of my favorite films.But in the process he has not sold out to the blockbusters making small intimate films on digital like Bubbles and ambitious marathons like the two part Che.He even had the audacity to reinterpret Tarkovskiy’s landmark Solyaris with a fair measure of success. His decision to quit directing and pursue painting and theatre reflect his restlessness and abundant artistic energy, not to speak of a complete lack of insecurity.He does not like to take “possessory credits” so there are no “A Steven Soderbergh film”s out there despite the fact that he does so much in a film including editing and cinematography, crediting himself under pseudonyms.
As a movie lover one can only wish him well and secretly wish for him to come out of retirement and give us some more.