Spoiler Level: Low
Steven Soderbergh has announced his intention to retire, claiming Side Effects will be his last film. I don't buy it for a moment—in Hollywood, after all, that sort of announcement usually turns out to herald a break of six to 18 months—but, for the sake of argument, let's pretend we believe him. If this slick, competent, painfully derivative thriller does indeed turn out to be Soderbergh's swan song, it will be the sadly appropriate capstone to a career that promised so much brilliance, and delivered so little originality.
Once the wunderkind who inspired an independent film renaissance with 1989's sex, lies, and videotape, Soderbergh has spent the quarter century since proving—to my satisfaction, at least—that he is that most frustrating of creative types: one with a startling surplus of talent but a limiting lack of personal vision. While other critics have marveled at his "versatility"—happily following him from one Hollywood genre picture to another—I've watched his career with impatience and frustration, wondering if the real Steven Soderbergh was ever going to show up and reveal himself. Somewhere around Contagion I finally accepted that this Jack of All Trades, Master of None was the real Steven Soderbergh. He was a talented voice, but he had nothing in particular to say. He could do any kind of picture—Caper flick! Medical disaster movie! Martial arts film! Noir!—except the kind we'd never seen before. He was a gifted filmmaker, but he would never be an artist, and maybe it was unfair to expect him to be one.
Like too many of Soderbergh's films, Side Effects is an utterly forgettable, middling Hollywood B-movie falsely elevated by an A-list cast and the director's considerable skills behind the camera. Rooney Mara—whose startling, stunning performance in David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was one of my favorite performances of 2011—stars as Emily, a 28-year-old woman whose formerly wealthy husband Martin (Channing Tatum) was sentenced to prison for insider trading.
As the film opens, Martin is released on parole, and the couple are trying to adjust to their new, more modest lifestyle. The reconciliation is rocky, however, and Emily appears to be severely depressed; after an apparent suicide attempt—she drives her car into a wall—she comes under the treatment of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). Banks, after consulting with Emily's previous therapist (a somewhat campily wasted Catherine Zeta-Jones) puts her on a new anti-depressant called Ablixa, which produces some strange side effects. Soon, Emily is doing things in her sleep that she doesn't seem to remember doing.
With nearly every Soderbergh film, we go in wondering which well-trodden ground he is venturing onto this time: from the previews for Side Effects I thought–and hoped—that we were in for a little Cronenbergian body horror, perhaps with a sharp critique of our nation's current obsession with pharmaceuticals. And for a while Side Effects does seem to be heading down that road: the opening shots have a very (deliberate) Rosemary's Baby feel of paranoia and impending doom—hammered home by an annoying tinkly score by Thomas Newman—and Emily seems, like that movie's protagonist, to be an innocent and sympathetic woman falling down an increasingly nightmarish rabbit hole.
As Emily's drug-influenced life spirals further out of control, the central question of the film becomes, Who is to blame? Midway through, the film's center (if not its sympathy) shifts from Emily herself to Banks, as the noose of professional judgement begins to tighten around him. God knows the pharmaceutical industry is a topic ripe for exploration, and the screenplay—by frequent Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burns—does manage to work in a little sly social commentary, especially concerning the universality of embracing chemical solutions to emotional problems. (No one attempts to actually deal with what might be at the root of Emily's problems, but literally everyone she encounters has an opinion on which anti-depressants are the best.)
But as Side Effects progresses it becomes increasingly clear that the movie has much less on its mind than it pretends. I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, but, as it turns out, the particular genre-hat that Soderbergh is wearing this time turns out to be neither body horror nor dark social satire, but legal thriller. Though it never quite becomes a courtroom movie, Side Effects ended up reminding me most of late '80s, early '90s legal thrillers like Presumed Innocent, Suspect, Primal Fear, or—perhaps its closest approximation—Malice. The film piles on ridiculous twist after ridiculous twist, each one belying the logic of the twist that came before. All of these twists have the cumulative effect of not only making us feel we've seen this film a dozen times before, but also of making us not give a damn about anyone in the film or anything that happens to them. Despite the excellent cast, there are ultimately no characters, just implausible plot contrivances in vaguely human form.
Hollywood has always produced these kind of dumb movies pretending to be smart, and there will always be an audience for them: they're guilty pleasures that play to our enjoyment of being manipulated and hoodwinked, and there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. And, if such films are going to be made, perhaps we should be grateful that a director of Soderbergh's natural ability is on hand to make them at least visually interesting and slickly polished.
But, to me, it seems like such a tremendous waste. Soderbergh has, over the years, taken plenty of risks with off-beat projects like Schizopolis, Kafka, and The Girlfriend Experience, but these have been largely unsuccessful (in every sense of the word). His mainstream films have been more successful, and have occasionally been very good indeed: the best of these—for my money Oceans 11 and Out of Sight—are exemplary films in their respective genres. But too much of Soderbergh's output has been mainstream, work-for-hire Hollywood dreck like Oceans 12 & 13, Erin Brokovitch, and last year's thin, harmlessly crowd-pleasing Magic Mike. I go into so many of his films wondering what he saw in that particular project that made him think it would be worth his time—and I come out of them wondering the same thing. In none of them, really, have I seen evidence of the offbeat, insightful, deeply personal voice that made such a triumphant debut with sex, lies, and videotape. That was a film that could only have come from Steven Soderbergh, and I'm not sure we could say that about anything since.
Obviously, there is still hope for Steven Soderbergh: he is, after all, only 50, and perhaps this "retirement" is just the break he needs to locate his own voice and develop a project worthy of his talents. Or perhaps his future lies in producing, where he has honorably supported artists with visions so much more singular than his own, such as Todd Haynes, Richard Linklater, and Lynne Ramsay. What is clear, however, is that we don't need Steven Soderbergh to give us any more films like Side Effects: it's easy to understand how a gifted director could grow tired of directing movies like this.