Steven Soderbergh, you sly dog, you!
Everyone is Side Effects talks in hushed, measured, careful tones even when angry or sad… or acting. It’s as if Soderbergh had the entire cast tranquilized. Everything about his camera and framing is measured as well. The opening shots (with Thomas Newman’s best score since American Beauty playing on the soundtrack over innocuous credits) echo Hitchcock’s Psycho. We’re in a city…we’re zooming in on a building…a window…slowly we enter a room… there’s blood on the floor…and clues. Shots, tight, not lingering. Not wasting a moment. And then…three months earlier…the title card announces.
After that hint of suspense, Soderbergh tranquillizes the audience. We think we’re watching some topical drama about the dangers of prescription drugs and societal malaise during the Great Recession. Pretty, thin little Emily (a perfectly cast Rooney Mara) looks like a strong wind will blow her away. She suffers from depression, and her husband (a cavalier and charming Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison where he served a short term for insider trading. Emily, struggling to cope, slams her car into a wall and then goes under the watchful care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law, appropriately arrogant but empathetic) who thoughtfully tries to find the right cocktail of medication to get her through her “poisonous fog.” He even takes care to contact her former psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Seibert (a deliciously cold Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Emily’s depression is out in the open as is the style of our Facebook generation, and friends and coworkers rattle off drugs they’ve taken to cope in casual conversation as if talking about the latest fashion trend or hip restaurant. Everyone has something to recommend. The psychiatrists meanwhile are wined and dined by pharmaceutical companies and seduced by big dollars being paid for clinical trials. Dr. Banks and Emily are both seduced by the promises of Ablixa – but there’s a serious side effect: sleep walking. And you know what they say about trying to wake somebody when they’re sleepwalking…
And jab jab jab…Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns rip the rug from under the audience, wake us up, and suddenly we’re in a completely different type of film…the type of film hinted at in the opening shots…the type of film that Hitchcock would make if he were alive today. It’s a great disposable lark of a film on par with two Hitchcockian homages that delighted us in February of 2010 – Polanski’s The Ghost Writer and Scorsese’s Shutter Island. But you want to go into this one cold. I won’t even tell you about what happens during the better two-thirds of the film…the twists…the turns…the knowing smirk that will be brushed across your face as you realize what’s really happening. Your blank slate will be the perfect canvas for Soderbergh’s cold precision painting and waste-not-a-single-moment pacing.
But the greatest twist I hope occurs is outside the context of Side Effects. Soderbergh has told the press recently he’s retiring from film…for awhile…maybe.
But, dude, Stevo, my man…you’re just too damn good at this artsy genre stuff to give up now. Ya dig?
It’s a joke, right?
In the meantime, the side effects of his latest digitally shot movie drug are ones a discerning adult audience should be happy to endure in the cold doldrums of cinema’s bitter winter.
Written by David H. Schleicher