Friday, February 8, 2013

Side Effects

If true to word, than Side Effects may well be last feature film for the screen directed by Steven Soderbergh, and even more so, the immeasurably enjoyable film itself will likely fall to a mere footnote in his wealth of cinematic achievements.  The greatest asset of Soderbergh as a filmmaker, and one that's been amped in the past few years since those retirement rumors began, was always in that sense that he so easily could move on to something else and something quickly.  Trudging through a hot and cold career as one of American filmmaking top provocateurs by making a true blue Hollywood crowdpleaser (Erin Brockovich) just to follow it up mere months later with a bold, dense dissection of the drug war (Traffic), mixing big budget franchise for hire work (Ocean's Eleven) with experimental no-budget oddities (Bubble), traversing the less hallowed path of genuine journeyman.  And while some of his features left many a bit cold, perhaps made from the pure invention that someone could (Solaris, The Good German), but the saving grace was always that in a short time he would come out with something new, and something different, that while perhaps at times divisive still gave voice to a singular artist of the movie making language.  Whatever the case, the past two years of pre-retirement filmmaking may have to be considered one of the most rejuvenating periods in any filmmakers' period.  With Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike and now, Side Effects, Soderbergh's has made a nervy and showy last call.  His latest may just be the best of the bunch-- a corker of thriller.

Stylish and immaculately staged-- lensed by Soderbergh himself, and as all of his films credited under the alias Peter Andrews-- Side Effects is a nervy, head-scratching reworking of the classic whodunnit with a gentle nod to cinema past, but not incidentally featuring a broader, more difficult to digest subject matter at its periphery.  Emily (Rooney Mara), a product, if any, of the Prozac Nation, is a angst-ridden Manhattan twenty-something.  She's battled depression before and things seem to taking a downward turn as her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after a four year stint for insider trading.  One of the disarming and nearly comically asides of Side Effects comes directly from a culture that's all too aware and seemingly in the know of the ingredients for mind and soul improvement-- and the culture chic for antidepressants isn't exactly anything new, but it's still a bit strange that in the decades-plus, there really hasn't been a great movie to explore those effects candidly on screen before.  The fodder is endless-- from the countless television ads from the newest miracle aid to just idle conversation with friends and passersby-- the stigma is long gone and the pharmaceuticals are seemingly all the more richer because of it.

The simpler side of the story follows that as Emily's condition starts to worsen, she is prescribed a new wonder drug called Ablixa by her psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law.)  At first all seems well, as the newly engaged Emily has more energy, a more vibrant sex drive but the drug has a nasty side effect in the form of sleepwalking.  One night, while doing so, Emily does something really awful; nasty tabloid-ready awful.  It's important, I feel, to stop there with plot elements, as the raw nervy pleasures of Side Effects are in the marvelous way in which it unravels, twists and turns and in the clever precision in which Soderbergh and scribe Scott Z. Burns (in his third outing with the filmmaker following The Informant and Contagion) begin Side Effects as a study of pharma morality and end it as a Body Heat-infused genre play sudser.  The delight comes in those turns, and the great pleasure of watching a master concoct a simple little ditty of suspense.  And even so in doing so, he asks his audience to swallow no small bit of absurdity-- most of which including Catherine Zeta-Jones' horny librarian take as a rival shrink-- yet the poker face of this not quite ripped from the headlines tale has that nearly alchemical way of tying it all together, dignity in tact.

It's a neat slight of hand that the film starts out as a deeper more unsettling morality play and settles as a fun house hall of mirrors.  For as Emily's crime-- again a really bad one-- becomes a played out plea for responsibility.  Is is Emily, the depressed young woman under the influence?  Or Dr. Banks, who like many in his field offer hope in a variety of pills forms?  Or the pharmaceutical industry who peddle brands into the mainstream?  Side Effects unnerves even more by introducing Dr. Banks as a professional with ties (and big time financial interests) with the drug peddlers, all of which becomes subverted as he becomes entangled in a classic case of Hitchcockian wrong man syndrome.  Law, for this effect, does a tremendous job in balancing out the moral judgements of his character by refusing judgements of his own.  There's a terrific scene midway through where Dr. Banks administers a truth serum to Emily that changes the veins of the film entirely, but that's held together-- almost a ludicrous degree-- by the fine caliber of the acting.

Of which Soderbergh has always been celebrated for getting layered and nuanced performances from the broadest range of actors-- be it porn stars, non-professionals, and true movie stars.  While else would actors forever clamor to be a part of his ensembles, no matter the part.  Side Effects is mostly a four character play, with Law and Mara at it's center, and both are unwaveringly good.  Mara, free of bombast and tattoos of The Girl of the Dragon Tattoo's trappings, displays that rare gift of fierce vulnerability, and proves even more so, the potential for auteurial muse-ship.  She makes grief and puzzlement palpable, both also seems to encapsulate an actor under wise tutelage, transcending mere hitting ones marks.  It's in her subtle hands that Side Effects keeps most of twists fresh and surprising as much as the cleverly deftness of the screenplay or the mastery of Soderbergh, whose crafted one of the least fussy and leanest Hollywood suspense thrillers since, well probably, Contagion.  

And so if this does end of being Soderbergh's grand finale from the silver screen, of course that would pretty much suck for less than gracious way of putting it, but that legacy that was cemented nearly twenty-five years ago when he helped pioneer the modern American independent film movement with sex, lies and videotape reared a career that maintained its edge, finesse and experimentalism.  Side Effects will never be remembered particularly as a great movie, but should have a lasting linger as being a part of the great Soderbergh canon of on-the-go cinema pleasures.  B+

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