Steven Soderbergh’s announcement that with Side Effects, his career as a director of movies produced to play in theaters has–at least for now–come to an end is sad news for moviegovers. (Soderbergh still has an HBO biography of Liberace set to air, and he’s kept the door open on other possible television projects; he also plans to work on the stage and in print, and to pursue other artistic interests including painting.) Soderbergh is one of the smartest and most adventurous filmmakers around, and his apparent disillusion with the business in recent years and lack of artistic satisfaction as a movie director removes a distinctive voice from the increasingly homogenous chorus of mainstream Hollywood.
It would be great to say that Soderbergh is exiting on a high note, but Side Effects feels like the work of a tired artist going through the motions; it falls victim to one of Soderbergh’s key characteristics as a director, an emotional detachment that can make some of his films feel like nothing more than exercises in style. It’s not present all the time (Magic Mike, Erin Brockovich and Out of Sight all have blood coursing through their veins), and the tendency toward dispassion has itself helped make some of his films great (Traffic, The Girlfriend Experience and Contagion have all benefited from that touch, and the deftness of his Ocean’s franchise is related to its cool temperature), but Che, The Good German, The Informant!, Full Frontal, Solaris and Haywire are among those that feel empty at their core, as though they exist so Soderbergh could prove some cinematic theorem for his own amusement.
Side Effects is one of those “trick” movies, its script by Scott Z. Burns (he also wrote The Informant! and Contagion) fully booted with not-entirely-unpredictable twists and turnarounds, so it’s hard to say very much about it without coming up against the dreaded SPOILER ALERT. Suffice it to say that the first 35 minutes tell the story of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young New Yorker in her 20s whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is just being released from prison for insider trading. Martin’s return, and his plans to relocate them so he can get back into business, lead Emily to episodes of clinical depression that include driving her car into a concrete wall. That puts her in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who after consulting with Emily’s previous therapist Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), eventually prescribes her the new drug Ablixa, an anti-depressant with potential side effects that include sleepwalking. At the 35-minute mark, something happens, and we gradually come to realize that things are more complicated than we were at first led to believe.
Soderbergh and Burns do a very smooth job of spinning out the revelations and misleading us wherever possible, and as is always the case with a Soderbergh film, the technical aspects are first-rate. He handles the cinematography and editing himself, under his usual respective pseudonyms of Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, and there’s an excellent, insinuating score by Thomas Newman.
Nevertheless, this is probably the last kind of movie Soderbergh should be making, because with his long-held attraction to artifice and sleight-of-hand, a story that has very little to it but a bag of plot twists is likely going to feel synthetic and pointless. Mara is almost too well cast–without giving too much away, her generally flat demeanor (not entirely dissimilar to Sasha Grey’s in Girlfriend Experience) cuts us off from Emily, because Soderbergh, unlike Fincher when he directed her in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, isn’t interested in finding the churn of emotions under her blankness (and in this particular genre, that’s an appropriate decision). The resulting emotional distance gives us far too much space to think about how far-fetched and unconvincing the plot really is. Without anyone to care about or root for, Side Effects becomes disassociated from its own narrative without ever becoming a commentary on that fact (as, for example, Full Frontal and The Good German attempted to be). It’s as though Michael Haneke had directed an episode of Shonda Rhimes’ Scandal.
No one wants to see Steven Soderbergh stop making movies, but when you look at his recent run of films (Magic Mike being an exception), you can almost feel his increasing lack of fulfillment, the way he seems to be assembling his projects instead of jumping into them with enthusiasm. Soderbergh wrote a book (a great one, by the way) when he was just about to hit the jackpot by directing Out of Sight and Erin Brockovich, called “Getting Away With It: The Further Adventures of the Luckiest Bastard You Ever Saw.” He doesn’t seem to feel like that bastard anymore. Perhaps it’s not a bad thing for him to recharge his batteries–a process that we can all hope he’ll complete sooner rather than later.