Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Side Effects: Sad Swan Song for Soderbergh

Side Effects is supposed to be Steven Soderbergh's last feature film. The director announced his retirement a couple of years ago and at first it seemed like it may just be that kind of thread that doesn't come true (think how Gran Torino was supposed to be Clint Eastwood's last acting job), but now there's press releases everywhere announcing Side Effects as Soderbergh's final theatrical production. It's sad that such an interesting as Soderbergh has decided to retire, although I doubt he'll stop working (for starters, his next project is an HBO movie about Liberace to be released later this year). What's sadder is that he has decided to exit the movie theaters with a movie as bad as Side Effects. 

The premise of the movie is certainly an intriguing one. Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor, a severely depressed woman. Her husband, played by Channing Tatum, has just been released after serving time in jail for insider trading. Her old psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) couldn't help her with her depression. Now she's seeing Dr. Banks (Jude Law) and relying more heavily than ever on medication. That is until the side effects of one of her pills leads her to commit a terrible crime. Sounds pretty interesting, right? Suddenly there's a crime and someone must be blamed for what happened. But who is to blame in this situation? The patient? The doctor who prescribed the pills? The company that makes them? Someone else? 

There are not only questions of morality, but of obsession and guilt that the movie sets out to explore. Or at least it seemed as if the movie wanted to touch on such complex subjects. For much of the movie we are wondering about what is causing Emily's depression and the morality behind the acts of Dr. Banks. Mara is a movie star on the rise and Law, as he becomes older, is starting to become more interesting an actor as ever (he was recently terrific in Anna Karenina). The two of them are actors at the top of their game and they are directed greatly by Soderbergh, who has more than once proved himself as a great actor's director. 

All of the film's complexities are, however, thrown down the toilet thanks to a stupid twist in the last act that rips everything that came before from any kind of nuance and turns the movie into an incredibly uninteresting caper. Not only that, but it also decides to take a rather misogynistic point of view. Channing Tatum and Rooney Mara's characters both commit crimes in this movie, but whereas Tatum's is treated with overall sympathy, the verdict on Mara's character seems unmeasured and unforgiving. A couple of final shots that try to bring some nuance back to the movie won't do when you've spent the entirety of the third act clearly delineating who is right and who is wrong in this whole mess.

Some critics have said this is Soderbergh's version of Hitchcock's Psycho, and while I see the similarities in structure, Side Effects is nowhere near as confident and precise in what it is doing as Hitchcock's beloved classic. Everything about Side Effects is about half measures  it doesn't know what kind of movie it wants to be. It doesn't embrace the bleakness of its central conflict nor the campiness of its later revelations. This movie is closer to those 90s sex thrillers that came out on the heels of Basic Instinct than anything Hitchcock. 

Grade: C-

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