It’s going to be mighty hard to say goodbye.
With Side Effects, director Steven Soderbergh nears the alleged conclusion of his directorial career (his final piece, Behind The Candelabra, arrives via HBO later this year), and when it’s all said and done, he will most certainly be remembered as one of the most important names in modern American cinema, helping usher in the rise in American independent film with his early pictures. Not only that, but he may be remember as the only American director to have a career that was able to bounce evenly between giant blockbusters like the Ocean’s series and subsequent shoestring budgeted films like Bubble.
However, unless Candelabra is brilliant (as it likely is), it may be a career that ends, ultimately, on a sour note.
A twisty thriller of plot turns, eroticism and betrayal, Side Effects has a premise seemingly ripped right out of the heyday of directors like Brian De Palma. With her husband finally out of prison, the pair of Emily and Martin are once again together, after four years apart due to Martin’s conviction for insider training. However, when the two can’t seem to connect, partially due to Emily’s on again, off again, battles with depression, she meets a new doctor and is prescribed a new drug. When she doesn’t seem to get any better, worlds are turned upside down in unforeseen ways.
Penned by Scott Z. Burns, the film is beautifully crafted and well acted, but much like the detached characters at its core, the emotional core that is held within this film is about as dead and lifeless as the camera it was shot with.
As his career nears its conclusion, the discussion surrounding anything from Soderbergh is his work behind the camera. Inarguably the glossiest and most beautiful work he has done in recent memory (it may very well be his most beautifully made film to date), Side Effects is a real aesthetic stunner. Inherently a film about non-physical,existential, violence (insider trading, big pharmacy tests, etc.), the film has a vitality in its camerawork and even more life in its cinematography (also done by Soderbergh). His films have had (particularly recently) an almost surreal sense of cleanliness and realism within their photography, and here may very well be the most distilled work, cinematically, from Soderbergh.
Also, the performances are killer. Always one able to gather a knockout cast, Soderbergh has grabbed the likes of Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones and even Ann Dowd for this film, all of them giving superb performances. Tatum isn’t asked to do much, but he’s engaging, and Law’s performance and story is the only thing resembling even a close relative of an emotional center. Dowd is solid here, but the story is Rooney Mara, who gives easily her best performance to date. Her ability to jump from emotionally over the top to almost disturbingly calm is startling, and near the end everything she gives us emotionally is believable and absolutely breathtaking.
So where is the disconnect? It’s directly inside the very soul, or lack thereof, this picture carries. The main issue with this picture is that there is utterly no emotional entrance for those looking to get anything out of this piece. Even the shallow focus hints at this film’s inherent strive for isolation, which is stylistically intriguing, but when one cares more about what time it is than what is about to happen to the people he or she is viewing, there is a distinct issue. For a film as twisty as this narrative ultimately is to not allow for anything remotely resembling emotional weight in these twists and turns, this is as frigid and aggressively isolating as anything Soderbergh has made. Lacking the multiple narratives that made Contagion so breathtaking or inherent connection one feels to the lead character in Haywire, Side Effects ultimately doesn’t add up to anything more than brainy style as opposed to a film with as much emotional brawn as it has brain. That said, the style is so damn stunning, that it itself may make you weep. It’s the only emotion you’ll feel the entire 105 minutes.