Side Effects – does Soderbergh’s swan song end his career on a high note?

Steven Soderbergh has long made it apparent his dislike for how directors are treated in Hollywood. He has often struggled getting his vision to the screen, battling producers and studios who think his work too arty and not entertaining enough. Soderbergh has announced that his latest film, Side Effects, is to be his last (after this he has directed the made-for-TV film Behind the Candelabra, a HBO biopic of Liberace). So, is Side Effects a worthy enough film to end Soderbergh’s career on the big screen?

Emily (Rooney Mara) is a young woman who has long suffered with depression. When her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from jail after he was imprisoned for insider trading for four years, things finally seem perfect. But soon she is struggling with her illness again and suffering more and more with suicidal tendencies. A visit to a new doctor (Jude Law) means a prescription for some new medication – a new drug on the market called ‘Ablixa’. However the side effects of this drug seem to bring on a whole new set of problems for Emily. And then, suddenly, everything spirals out of control…

I was dubious about seeing Side Effects. But about halfway through I was surprised to realise that I was enjoying it and that I was completely hooked into the story.  It was well-paced, enjoyable and it completely held my interest. But as with most Hollywood stories there is a twist in the plot. And it is this twist that will determine how much you will enjoy the outcome of the film. And indeed it meant that what for me began as a striking, entertaining film, became a mess of a convoluted plot. What could have been a nuanced discussion on the pharmaceutical industry and the profit it makes instead becomes a straight-out thriller, and a boring one at that. The twist itself is also entirely unbelievable, making Side Effects frustrating to watch after it has been revealed.

Furthermore the inclusion of this plot twist makes it seem as though writer Scott Z. Burns either couldn’t decide what he wanted to say, or that he wasn’t bold enough to say it. There is a small mention of insider trading and similar issues, hinting that Burns and Soderbergh might be commenting on the recession and capitalism. But this is again hidden beneath an implausible and increasingly ridiculous conclusion that makes the film feel like any other boring Hollywood thriller. Side Effects therefore seems to have been a huge missed opportunity for both Burns and Soderbergh.

The only aspects that seem to save the film are the solid performances, mostly from Rooney Mara as the damaged Emily. She is completely heartbreaking and wholly convincing as Emily begins to gradually fall apart. Jude Law as Jonathan Banks, her new psychiatrist, is also great as a man determined to uncover the truth behind Emily’s increasingly strange behaviour. And one other positive is that (as usual) the look of the film is stunning. Soderbergh employs his usual look used in his other films: luscious camerawork and yellow filters used throughout, which here creates a hazy look in order to reflect Emily’s psychological state. The soundtrack by Thomas Newman is also another positive element, Newman creating a beautiful and sweepingly emotional score to backdrop the film. However, the impressive performances, striking visuals and soundtrack can’t wipe the disappointment from your memory after watching Side Effects.

Soderbergh and Burns’ previous project together was Contagion, an effective and downright terrifying thriller that actually had something to say about a very prominent issue in the world. But Side Effects is nothing nearly as nuanced and thought-provoking as Contagion. With Side Effects it feels very much like Soderbergh wanted to create a different film from what he has made here. Had the story been something less Hollywood and something more of a critique on pharmaceutical companies and the profits they make , it would have been similar to his usual films and would in turn have been a worthy end to his oeuvre. Instead it is simply dull, predictable, and a bit of a mess. In my opinion Steve Soderbergh is one of the great auteurs around at the moment who is normally bold with his choices and not one to shy away from a complicated issue. And for this reason it will be a huge shame if this is to be his final film made for the big screen as it only feels like a Steven Soderbergh film in looks, nothing else. So here’s hoping he changes his mind about that retirement…

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~ by square-eyed-geek on April 11, 2013.

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