On the one hand, the man has achieved his share of success. He won an Oscar for Traffic, he helmed the commercially successful Ocean’s Eleven trilogy, and several of his earlier works are adored by critics — Out Of Sight perhaps most of all. The man consistently puts out solid product, with only a couple of titles that have been adject artistic failures. (Ocean’s Twelve was particularly dismal.) Yet it seems we take him for granted. Maybe that’s because his movies tend to be more like genre exercises than passion projects; he executes them so expertly, and yet we rarely (if ever) feel his beating heart behind the story and characters. He always seems a tad removed from the films he’s made, whether or not that is actually the case.
Despite the wide variation of his work, from kinky little experiments like The Girlfriend Experience to crowd-pleasers like Erin Brockovich, he is perhaps Hollywood’s most consistent filmmaker, even though he never stays in the same genre for long. He’s threatened to retire from the industry, something it seems only a filmmaker like Soderbergh could do, because he comes across as colder than most directors. He doesn’t have the same whims or flights of fancy that make other filmmakers’ works both more flawed and easier to engage with; in a sense, he hardly seems human.
That’s a pretty harsh criticism, I know, and so let me clarify that I’m in no way speaking about Soderbergh the person — merely what comes across through his films. If every auteur’s body of work is, in some ways, a glimpse into his soul, then Soderbergh’s remains a bit of a mystery. He’s an experimenter, a chameleon… but who is he, really?
Side Effects won’t answer that question. It’s a slick genre exercise in the same way that Haywire and Contagion were, but it’s probably more successful than either of those in satisfying the genre’s requirements. Soderbergh isn’t as playful here as he has been in the past, though that isn’t to say that he’s phoning it in. Most directors seem to lose themselves when saddled with a genre project, but Soderbergh only uses every genre to do what he always does, and do it well. Rather than be weakened by tropes, Soderbergh seems to love working within new limits; he uses them to go exploring.
The less said about the plot, the better. Side Effects reunites Soderbergh with several actors he’s worked with before (including Magic Mike himself, Channing Tatum), and one new one — Rooney Mara, a pretty major star for a woman who’s had only one starring role in a notable movie. That movie was, of course, her Oscar-nominated turn in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, in which she so disappeared into the role of Lisbeth Salander that Side Effects serves as a nice introduction to what she’s like when she’s playing a normal person. (Maybe.)
The film begins with Emily visiting her husband Martin in prison. He’s served four years for insider trading, and now he’s about to come home. Naturally, Emily’s feeling a little anxious about the transition; she decides to see a psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). He consults a former shrink of hers, played by Catherine Zeta-Jones, with some questions.
That’s about all I’ve giving you, because in a neat change of pace, few of Side Effects‘ surprises are given away in the trailer. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns pulls a nifty trick in shifting our focus from one protagonist to another, which we hardly notice as its happening. Side Effects avoids going down a few well-worn paths, raising questions about pharmaceuticals without feeling the need to completely demonize those who make them. It’s a refreshingly intimate study of a handful of characters, rather than vague, heartless corporate-types who are so popular as villains these days. There’s something nice and Hitchcockian about the relatively small cast of characters Side Effects focuses on, and its modest ambitions. It isn’t trying to do be much more than an intelligent and enthralling thriller, and that it is.
Why Side Effects feel like such a rare thing, then? How can we be so certain that this script would have been botched in the hands of most other working directors? Soderbergh is one few filmmakers capable of delivering a solid genre movie who still cares to. He seems right in his element, even though he’s never made a movie like this. It feels as if the man rarely gets his due. Soderbergh is admired, to be sure, but might be a more valuable filmmaker than we’ve given him credit for lately. With Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike, and now Side Effects, it feels like he’s moved into a new phase of his career, delivering movies that adhere to certain genre conventions and buck others — mostly, by being better than we’ve come to expect from such films.
Side Effects isn’t a game-changing movie by any means. It doesn’t do anything groundbreaking, except maybe not suck. But is there anyone else in Hollywood delivering this kind of entertainment this consistently? Is anyone better at assembling a truly A-grade cast? After quite a few years on the sidelines, this film reestablishes Jude Law as a charismatic leading man and proves Mara’s Oscar nod was no fluke. If only there was a pill we could give Soderbergh to convince him that this shouldn’t be his final theatrical release.