SIDE EFFECTS (2013, Steven Soderbergh): 6/10
I don’t think Soderbergh really wants to retire. Part of him must be sick of the business, and part of him must be exhausted (I don’t think any American other than Woody Allen can say they’ve directed 24 theatrical features since 1989, right?) but judging by his recent output, he definitely looks like a director eager to still play in the sandbox.
With HAYWIRE, he got to do an action movie, but an action movie Soderbergh’s way — long takes, slender story, jazzy editing etc. And with MAGIC MIKE, he turned a male-stripper comedy into a sobering look at American business mindsets and the relationship between sex, romance, and commerce. Now with SIDE EFFECTS, he tries his hand at a Brian De Palma/Alfred Hitchcock-style lurid pulp thriller. I know what you’re thinking — the trailers make it look like a Message Movie about the dangers of pharmaceuticals, and our culture’s over-reliance on pills to treat depression. And granted, there is some of that in there — in fact, one nice little shot shows a close-up of Jude Law’s character Jonathan Banks (a little nod to BREAKING BAD by writer Scott Z. Burns, maybe? Nah, probably just a coincidence) cracking open a Red Bull in order to stay energized for work while saying “Better living through chemistry.” But as it chugs along, the film (refreshingly, in my opinion) reveals that it’s really just a shallow, twisty, aiport-bookstore-paperback novella.
In fact, the story gets so ludicrous (and fairly difficult to swallow, once you leave the theater and parse it out) that you wish Soderbergh had gone all the way with it — turning on his full De Palma. (Though, can anyone but BDP himself really handle that)? Instead, there’s an air of seriousness about it — especially in the first half — that dampens some of the fun. I enjoyed the back half a lot more, especially the immensely satisfying final 20 minutes, despite the fact that these pleasures were existing merely on the most superficial possible level. It’s just that Soderbergh is such a good craftsman that I like seeing him playing in the Pulp Sandbox more than the Message Sandbox.
For her part, Rooney Mara turns out to be pretty strong here; at first I was deeply unimpressed and almost annoyed by her performance, but as the film goes on and I realized what she was doing with her character, a lot of things made more sense. She’s smart — maybe not as good as her older sister Kate (who first popped on my radar during season 1 of AMERICAN HORROR STORY and then came up with a tremendously mature and nuanced turn in HOUSE OF CARDS) — but strong nonetheless. I can’t say the same for Channing Tatum or Catherine Zeta-Jones, who seem to be sleepwalking through a film that doesn’t know how to treat their characters as anything other than cogs in a plot machine. I would say it’s really Law’s movie, except even he takes a back seat to Soderbergh himself, whose retirement with this film is not a quiet one breathing heavy final gasps. Instead, this swan song is the work of someone with too much to do and evidently not enough time to do it.