Friday, February 8, 2013

In Theaters: SIDE EFFECTS (2013)

(US - 2013)

Directed by Steven Soderbergh.  Written by Scott Z. Burns.  Cast: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Vinessa Shaw, Ann Dowd, Polly Draper, Mamie Gummer, David Costabile, Peter Friedman, Laila Robins, Michael Nathanson, Sheila Tapia. (R, 106 mins)

Steven Soderbergh has been announcing his retirement from feature films for several years now, and SIDE EFFECTS feels like what must be his seventh or eighth "last" film.  For a guy on the verge of retirement, he's been highly prolific:  SIDE EFFECTS is his third directorial feature in the last 13 months (after HAYWIRE and MAGIC MIKE), plus his upcoming HBO Michael Douglas-as-Liberace biopic BEHIND THE CANDELABRA is set to air later this year.  Whether he means it or if he just needs some time away from Hollywood remains to be seen, but SIDE EFFECTS finds Soderbergh in top form, working from a script by frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns (who also wrote Soderbergh's 2009 film THE INFORMANT! and 2011's CONTAGION), and fashioning a cleverly-constructed puzzler that starts out as one thing and very seamlessly and organically becomes another, all the while frequently misdirecting the audience but never cheating.

In a performance demonstrating the same intensity she brought to David Fincher's THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO, Rooney Mara is Emily Taylor, a young NYC ad agency staffer who's been on her own after her Wall Street husband Martin (Channing Tatum) was busted by the Feds for insider trading.  After serving four years in a minimum-security facility, Martin is paroled and Emily finds the adjustment difficult.  She's battled depression in the past and it rears its ugly head once more when she's hospitalized after intentionally driving her car into a parking garage wall at full speed.  In the hospital, she's consulted by attending psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who agrees to take her on as a patient and prescribes Zoloft, but the side effects leave Emily fatigued, moody, and withdrawn.  After discussing Emily's situation with her former psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Banks decides to prescribe the relatively new (and fictional) Ablixa.  Emily responds well to Ablixa, with more energy, better moods, and a hyperactive sex drive, but even it has side effects, such as prolonged episodes of sleepwalking where Emily spends the day on the subway and forgets to go to work, or wanders the apartment, blasting music and preparing elaborate meals with no memory of it the next morning.

It's during one of these sleepwalking episodes that Emily unknowingly kills someone and completely blacks out afterward.  It's here that Soderbergh and Burns shift the focus to Law's Dr. Banks, who finds himself a toxic pariah under fire by the cops, the lawyers, his colleagues, the ethics board, and the media when Emily blames the medication for her actions.  He's thrown under the bus by the partners in his practice, cut loose from a $50,000 contract for an experimental sleep med (which he also prescribed to Emily), has a professional transgression from his past drudged up, and his wife (Vinessa Shaw) is sent photos that seem to reveal an affair with Emily.  Banks' personal and professional lives come crashing down around him, and he starts getting the paranoid feeling that this is something much bigger than Emily's Ablixa side effects.

SIDE EFFECTS initially seems like it'll be an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry done with the clinical, point-by-point approach Soderbergh brought to the 2000 drug-trade chronicle TRAFFIC and the global contamination thriller CONTAGION.  But Soderbergh has always been a filmmaker who can deftly balance numerous styles and approaches to his work, whether tackling environmental issues in the form of a crowd-pleaser like 2000's ERIN BROCKOVICH, or using imaginative non-linear directorial and editing techniques on genre fare like HAYWIRE, 1998's OUT OF SIGHT, or 1999's THE LIMEY.  SIDE EFFECTS finds Soderbergh on his more straightforward, commercial, OCEAN'S ELEVEN side, and though it goes in unpredictable directions, it really displays no more depth than a vintage LAW & ORDER episode and would likely be made-for-TV movie material in lesser hands (there's even a humorous bit where Emily is describing the pre-prison era of her marriage to Banks and Soderbergh films the flashback in the same style as a prescription drug TV commercial).  The term "Hitchcockian" will be bandied about until the end of time, but it applies here, not just in the way the story switches gears and cleverly misdirects (think PSYCHO), but also in the construction.  SIDE EFFECTS is almost quaintly old-fashioned in the way it draws you in, manipulates you, then pulls the rug out on you.  When most films attempt this, it feels cheap and forced, and many filmmakers find that they have to cheat by negating earlier elements of the plot and unsuccessfully cramming pieces that don't fit into the plot holes left behind. Soderbergh and Burns are smarter than that--they don't overshoot and don't go so far as to back themselves into a corner where they have to fudge it and force things to work that don't.  In our post-USUAL SUSPECTS and post-Shyamalan world of suspense thrillers, everything has to have a crazy twist or ten, and more often than not, they collapse because they're trying too hard to outdo everything else.  SIDE EFFECTS plays it a lot cooler, offering twists, but they're plausible and restrained twists.  That's the kind of expertise that someone like Soderbergh brings to the table.

Is SIDE EFFECTS a "great" film?  Is it going to be a "classic"?  Probably not, and it isn't aspiring to be.  But it's smart, well-written, tightly-constructed, excellently-acted (even by Soderbergh man-crush Tatum), masterfully-directed, and above all, extremely entertaining.  It's refreshing proof that commercially-geared popcorn movies can be fun and intelligent and made for grown-ups without pandering to the lowest common denominator and dumbing everything down.  It expects you to turn your phone off, pay attention and keep up, and it generously rewards those simple actions accordingly.  Remember when that wasn't asking much from an audience? 

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