Thursday, March 7, 2013

Side Effects

Rooney Mara in Steven Soderbergh's final theatrical film, Side Effects
***1/2 out of ****
I rarely feel this warning is necessary, but if you intend to see this movie, then don’t read beyond this paragraph. You’re better off going into the theater knowing as little as I did. I will simply assure all who are curious, that this film is quite good. If you are skeptical, I will try to persuade you to see it anyway.   

Still in theaters, Side Effects is a dark drama with star power and a great director at its helm, who has spent the past few years making less-ambitious and humble projects than some of his more ambitious works like Traffic.

Steven Soderbergh claims this will be his final theatrical release as a director. I wouldn’t exactly call this “going out with a bang” but its still a reminder that sometimes it is the simpler movies of skilled directors that show you what they, as artists, are made of.

Side Effects is clever and assumes the audience is too. It follows the life of a young woman who begins to have a meltdown of deep depression as her loving husband (Channing Tatum), a Wall Street white-collar criminal, is released from prison to return home. After attempting suicide, she begins seeing a psychiatrist played by Jude Law who puts her on several anti-depressant trials.

Despite the supposed casting issues of this film’s production, its makers picked the perfect woman for the part. Rooney Mara has maybe the most gorgeous-yet-mysterious screen presence for any young actress working today. She killed in the opening scene of The Social Network and really killed in Fincher’s version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Her character in Side Effects must have the audience under a spell and she pulls this off splendidly.

Jude Law as the pill-pushing doctor does everything necessary for the character to come off as a likeable professional with good intentions as he bends over backwards for his new patient. He even makes a visit with her former psychiatrist played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, who suggests he try prescribing a new drug still in the experimental stage. As his patient’s condition worsens, he decides to take this advice. Excellent progress is made… Then very unexpected results occur.  

Soderbergh’s cinematography (under the his normal D.P. pseudonym Peter Andrews) is simple, psychologically effective, intimate and beautiful. The intrigue of the film is enhanced by Thomas Newman’s hypnotic music, which gives one the impression that this slow movie is bound to change gears –and it does.
This brings us to the potential side effects of the film: Viewers may become aggravated with plot twists. Come prepared to suspend your disbelief just a bit. Things get rather Hitchcockian –and I don’t use that label lightly. I’m not willing to give much away, but at the halfway point, this movie changes its genre as well as who the main character is.

The screenplay, by Scott Z. Burns, feels informed when concerning its subject matter of psychiatry, pharmaceuticals and legal issues that surround them. Like his previous film with Soderbergh, Contagion, the plot is a stretch, but the surrounding elements give the film weight.

I consider Soderbergh to be one of the most influential filmmakers in my lifetime. Not in the way that star-directors like Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen will be remembered for their obvious signature themes and styles. Soderbergh is more like Sidney Lumet who approached his material with a rational and humble attitude applying style where it worked.

If there is any theme I notice repeating in Soderbergh’s career, it is the subject of therapy. It makes sense because I have always seen him as the therapist of directors. He usually appears calm and willing to work with anyone or anything without discrimination and is determined to move that person or thing in a productive direction. 

The influence of his approach toward filmmaking is more philosophical than stylistic. Maybe that’s why he feels satisfied retiring. He hasn’t taught people how to make a “Soderbergh movie”, he’s taught people how to make a good movie. If Side Effects is truly the final big-screen effort from this man, it’s still an inspiration.

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