Friday, February 15, 2013

Please Consult a Physician

So this is Steven Soderbergh's last film, huh?

Meh, I've seen better.

Don't take that as grim satisfaction, those of you who avoided Side Effects this past week purely based on the HORRIBLE trailer that made the rounds before its recent release in theaters. Despite the silliness and melodrama you might have thought would be the backbone of an overly exaggerated caution tale, Soderbergh's drug-popping thriller surpasses expectations and turns out to be much better than you might have initially imagined.

Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who penned the director's disease drama Contagion) decides to focus his efforts on the pharmaceutical industry in this claustrophobic drama about young New Yorker Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), accused of a serious crime. The trick is that Emily was on medication for depression at the time of the incident and claims that she was sleepwalking (an effect of the drug) when she committed the deed. Soon the focus of the investigation turns to her psychologist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who prescribed the medication to her. As Jonathan's private life rapidly falls apart over the fallout, he frantically obsesses over his search for the truth: is Emily a victim of his malpractice, or is something far more sinister going on?

Maybe she'll feel better. Maybe not...
Soderbergh reminds us once again why he's one of the more renowned directors in Hollywood by presenting us a film that is undeniably different from anything else out there while still appealing to our mainstream sensibilities. The first two thirds of the movie are taut with suspense, fraught with drama, and manage to maintain focus on his message. In that regard, it's positively terrifying to see into a world where prescription and nonprescription drugs are not only quickly handed out for any condition, but are in fact the subject of everyday conversations between the people of this universe, while we in the real world can only respond with: "Yeah, that actually happens." That's what makes Side Effects so... effective; the world and situations  presented to us could easily happen in real life. Emphasizing that point are excellent performances by Mara and Law (that's right, I'm praising a Jude Law performance). Mara, in the followup to her excellent portrayal of Lisbeth Salander in 2011's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, threads the needle of emotion in a role that requires a ton of flexibility to work. Mara might still look like she's still a teenager, but her maturity shines through brightly, and if anybody was paying attention they might be looking at this young woman as a future Oscar candidate. Law meanwhile manages to turn a typically smarmy performance to his benefit, toning it down and managing to play an effective protagonist and sympathetic character. Even Channing Tatum, who has a small but important role, carries his load admirably, continuing to show the improvement he's taken from his excellent 2012.

Same actor as Contagion; not so much of an ass.
But where Soderbergh and Burns put together an effective story for much of the film, it's the end game of Side Effects where they nearly drop the ball. While you can't deny the haunting twists and turns the screenplay takes, there's one thing the movie cannot avoid, and that's spoiling itself. When the climax finally comes around, not only is it plainly explained as though it were the blue of the sky, but it's largely PREDICTABLE. That's a huge letdown after the pair had been so effective at trickling out limited clues beforehand. Another disappointment? The casting of Catherine Zeta-Jones as a Emily's previous psychologist, Dr. Siebert. I'm not sure if the part was lazily written (I'm not ruling it out) or if the Academy Award-winning actress was simply miscast, but her eyebrow-raising (not in a good way) work was part of the reason I was able to sort-of predict the finale. Still, the director does an excellent technical job, and his ability behind the camera almost completely makes up for the few missteps he actually makes.

What a waste.
Between Soderbergh's excellent direction, the outstanding acting of his leads, and his easily-understood but still-terrifying look at the world of psychiatric medicine, Side Effects is a much better movie than you would ever expect. It does manage to become the #3 movie of 2013, though that's almost more a testament to quality of the competition as it is to the Hitchcock-like quality of Side Effects itself. Still, I don't doubt that this is a movie that will take you by surprise should you actually give it the time of day. This might be Soderbergh's last major motion picture, and while I wish he had gone out on a higher note (this is the man who brought us Erin Brockovich, Oceans 11 and Magic Mike, after all), it's not the worst place to end the journey, either. But while Steven Soderbergh will be likely be remembered for his unique style of storytelling and ability to make just about anything interesting, Side Effects seems destined to finish up in the "forgotten" pile.

1 comment:

Richard J. Marcej said...

I kept getting such a "Body Heat" vibe during this film that I was never surprised by the ending. And I agree with the miscast of CZJ, Ironically enough, had someone like a Nancy Culp played that part, I believe the end wouldn't been as predictable.