Now on DVD: Steven Soderbergh's Comfortably Numb Side Effects
We should probably talk about Steven Soderbergh’s decision to retire from filmmaking. There are caveats, of course — he’s got the Liberace story Behind the Candelabra coming this year on HBO, he’s said that he’d be open to theater or TV, he’s half-joked that “I’ll be the first person to say if I can’t be any good at it and run out of money I’ll be back making another ‘Ocean’s’ movie,” plus he could always just make another movie anyway; this isn’t like a legally binding declaration — but for the most part, he seems intent on ending the “Hollywood director” chapter of his life. He’s explored the limits of what he’s called the “tyranny of narrative,” and he’s opted to move on. He wants out. Side Effects, then, is likely the best possible film to end on because it encapsulates the kind of filmmaker Soderbergh’s become: methodical and cold, emotionally present if somewhat stunted, obsessed with the paranoid tension between perception and action. It’s good, but it’s also very much of a piece with Soderbergh’s filmography the past decade or so, which is to say it’s the kind of movie you look at and say “It’s good” because there’s only so much emotional attachment you can develop to something that doesn’t really care if you’re there.
“You know what the best predictor of future behavior is? Past behavior.” Psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) says this to his patient, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), when discussing the ways that mental illness and its pharmaceutical remedies can affect the mind and body. It’s a smart standby line for Banks, ringing perfectly of those pat phrases doctors use to give narrative to the messy concepts of treatment and disease, but it’s also a good way to think about Soderbergh. Although he’s slid between genres and experimented within them, he’s also refined his emotional and aesthetic goals with a tightened focus on clinical removes, rigid composure, and static shots of people sitting very still and trying to smother their emotions. What’s come before defines what come next, making Side Effects right in line with the rest of his work. The best thing a hero can do in a Soderbergh picture is take control of a situation, especially if he can look as passive as possible while doing so. Think of George Clooney’s commanding yet passive presence in the Ocean’s films or Solaris, or the almost deadened way with which Haywire’s Gina Carano worked her way through enemies. Even Magic Mike was about men taking control by leveraging a lack of emotional connection to their clients. True to form, Side Effects is all about control — emotional and physical — and the lengths people travel to regain it.
The core of the story deals with the complicated relationship between Emily, who’s being treated for depression, and Banks, a smooth but mostly likeable doctor who’s more than willing to promote a variety of medicines for his patients on behalf of drug companies. At the beginning of the film, Emily’s husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is just getting out of prison after serving four years for insider trading. She’s been the one keeping things together in his absence, and now that Martin’s back and trying to get both hands around his old life, Emily’s losing her hold on it. Her growing listlessness is a perfect stylistic fit for Soderbergh, and in keeping the frames relatively tight he underscores Emily’s general feelings of imprisonment and stasis. Banks genuinely wants to help her, though Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns don’t try to make him a saint. He still wants to get paid.
It’s this shifting balance of power and motivation that defines most of the film, though the plot soon takes on the kinds of twists that can’t be discussed here. It’s enough to say, though, that Soderbergh is still an expert at documenting the initially minor things that can cause people’s lives to unravel, as well as the frightening speed with which suspicion turns to rumor turns to guilt by association. While Contagion was about the spread of a disease, Side Effects is about the way bad ideas themselves can metastasize without warning.
There are some good ideas and moments in Side Effects, most of them built around Law’s character. The film continues Soderbergh’s habit of taking a man known currently or formerly as a sex symbol (George Clooney, Tatum) and stripping them of their sexual power while forcing them to slowly lose their ability to persuade/seduce those around them. Part of this has always been a nod to the actors’ off-screen personas; Soderbergh’s been getting cuter with this since Ocean’s 11, which not coincidentally used “introducing Julia Roberts” in its closing credits. Yet though these metafictional riffs are apparently a big part of the charge for Soderbergh, he’s not just goofing around. He remains convinced, and rightly so, that sexuality and the human body are merely the entryway to much darker and more interesting ideas. Law’s charm and charisma here become some of the tools of his own downfall, tools he doesn’t even know he’s wielding against himself until it’s too late. In other words, Soderbergh’s interested in people as people, not merely as objects that fit each other.
That interest only gets you so far, though, especially as a viewer. Side Effects is engaging the way a really good term paper is engaging: it makes its case with style, but it’s often short on entertainment. This doesn’t make the film bad, just less captivating. Soderbergh’s a technician more than anything, and the late 1990s was the last time he was able to marry his technical experimentation with something resembling a desire to incite an unironic emotional response in the audience.
Weirdly, I still mostly liked Side Effects. I really did. But I also know I’m never going to watch it again. It’s not a movie to seek out, and it’s not even one you really enjoy the first time. Soderbergh’s talent is evident as ever, and the film’s another in the long line of entries that solidify his vibe and general m.o. — fuzzy lights and muted colors, as if the camera itself is frozen in the same amber that seems to have trapped the characters — yet there’s a perfunctory feeling to the whole thing, even as he’s working his way through some slightly trashier twists that feel ported over from videos released twenty years ago. If you didn’t know he was planning to retire, this movie might give you the idea anyway.