If there’s one thing to say about Steven Soderbergh, it’s that the man never had any interest in making the same film twice. Sure, he made two sequels to Ocean’s Eleven (which are wildly different from one another, to better or worse degrees, I’ll let you decide), split his epic, Che, into two parts, and conveyed his stories in similar fashions, but for all intents and purposes, I’ve never seen Soderbergh repeat himself.
If anything, it is his perfect style and flawless craft that links his films together. You can always tell, within minutes, that you’re watching a Soderbergh film, but, again, I’d argue they all differ in story and plot.
I derive as much pleasure in talking about the plot of a Soderbergh movie as I do from staring at a beige-colored wall. That’s not to say I don’t dig them, but the man is a master of technique, of which much attention deserves to be given. But, to briefly divulge: Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is depressed. With her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), fresh out of jail after serving a four-year bit for insider trading, it doesn’t take long for Emily’s latent depression to quickly reemerge. Through skillful dialogue, as penned by the crafty Scott Z. Burns, we come to understand that Emily’s emotional despair has followed her since she was a child. And when she purposefully drives her car head on into a concrete wall, the need for intervention is absolute.
After the accident, psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is assigned to Emily’s case. He sees her regularly and soon prescribes a new drug, Ablixa to help combat her torment. The drug works, for a spell, until it’s the cause of something shocking, the likes of which I won’t reveal. Know that there are twists and there are turns, all of which are far better discovered for yourself.
Now, technically, Side Effects is precisely what fans of Soderbergh can expect from him. Directed, photographed, and edited by Soderbergh himself, I’m hard pressed to think of a current cinematic craftsman who establishes a shot, and knows exactly how long to keep it, better than Soderbergh. In addition, the film’s color palette is as distinct as most of Soderbergh’s films. Side Effects is often drowned in muddled tones (to reflect Emily’s mood), but seamlessly overexposed at moments begging to be studied.
Another aspect of Soderbergh’s work I’ve discussed on this blog ad nauseum is his constant need to capture naturalism from his actors. (He does this, it should be noted, by directing his actors very little, opting for them to trust their instincts as opposed to verbally dissecting the character’s motivations.) And, like all of his movies, Side Effects assembles a crop of talent who execute at the top of their respective games.
I go back and forth with Jude Law. For my money, he isn’t a consistently good actor, but when put in the right hands, his desperation can be brought to life in the best possible way. His Dr. Banks deserves to join the ranks with the most tirelessly frantic characters he’s portrayed yet. Of which there are many.
Thanks much in part to Soderbergh’s style, Channing Tatum’s career has broached a newfound respect I never saw coming. Dug him in Haywire, loved him in Magic Mike, and I completely bought Martin’s urge to get back into the In Crowd in Side Effects. It was also rather refreshing to hear Tatum throw out his standard cadence for Martin. There’s no starting a sentence with “yo,” ending it with “man,” and leaving the g’s off his gerunds. (Now, I wonder, what will become of Tatum’s career post-Soderbergh retirement…)
Catherine Zeta-Jones (as a former doctor of Emily’s) plays cold and calculating in ways that make her performance the best thing she’s done in years. As Law’s strong but puzzled wife, Vinessa Shaw once again proves that she is an actress whose talent deserves to be discussed far more than it is. But the real star here is Rooney Mara, an actress that’s, well, my kind of actress.
As a viewer, I’m much more drawn to what a performer can do with a gentle stare than four pages of dialogue. That isn’t to say I don’t value grand monologues, but Mara gives Emily a pair of cold, dead eyes that are impossible to turn away from. Now, there are a handful of times in Side Effects in which Emily casts a big, bright, beaming smile. When I saw this, I was stunned, and oddly moved. And then I thought about it. In her two prior standout roles (in David Fincher’s films The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), Mara played women who, among other things, don’t smile. At all. So when I saw Emily shine her pearly whites so innocently, I was reminded yet again (but for completely different reasons) that this woman has got it. She deserves to be one of the biggest stars in the game.
Much has been made about Steven Soderbergh’s impending retirement. After the many battles he incurred before, during, and after the production of Che, Soderbergh began publicly declaring that enough was enough. He said he’d be finished directing by the middle of 2013, and with his Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, set to air on HBO this summer, it appears as though he’s sticking to his word. He has no projects in development, and no plans to do anything related to directing feature films. My obvious adulation for his work should make it clear that his retirement saddens me a great deal. Thankfully, he’s more or less made a film a year (sometimes two) for his more than 20-year career.
I’ll miss seeing his new work, but if Side Effects is any indication, there’s always more to gain for rewatching a Soderbergh film. A-