Meds madness

Side Effects is an elegant looking and watchable but ultimately shallow feature from Steven Soderbergh (he says it will be his last) in which the taking of anti-depressants leads to mayhem for a young couple with issues. Roony Mara plays the depressed wife of a just-released commodities trader Channing Tatum who did jail time for illegalities. Rooney played the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in Fincher’s US remake of the Swedish series starring Noomi Rapace. And there’s a similarity between the cold cleverness and far-fetched machinations in this story and in Alain Corneau’s last film, Love Crime, in Brian De Palma’s unrelesed remake of which, Rapace plays the protagonist. (Ludivine Segnier, in the original by Corneau, is better in every way than these Dragon Tattoo ladies.) In both movies, Love Crime and Side Effects, men are treated as tools by women whose relationships have a lesbian element. People live and work in coldly flashy locations. In both movies the respective Dragon Tattoo girl implicates herself in a murder, with a tricky way of exculpating herself that later backfires. Love Crime gradually moves from cutthroat corporate competition to a crime of passion. Side Effects rather suddenly shifts, part way in, from an arguably timely study of the complications of Big Pharma’s over-promotion of psycho-pharmaceuticals to a more conventional crime thriller. In Soderbergh’s movie, energetically cool though one-dimensional turns by Jude law and Catherine Zeta-Jones as warring psychiatrists add luster to a nifty if uninvolving puzzler. Does any of this matter? I don’t think so.

Side Effects (written by script doctor Scott Z. Burns) reads like any Eighties video you might have rented to watch on a rainy evening. You’d feel lucky you’d picked up something with so much class. But the hokey plotline doesn’t survive in bright daylight. The shallow characterizations leave little impression after the puzzles have been sprung open. I got more pleasure from the reds in a shot of a bar — Soderbergh’s own cinematography (done under his normal nom-de-lens Peter Andrews) is good — than from the action. The way Side Effects is being praised owes a lot to its release in the winter movie dumping season, when much of what hits the screen is loud, crude, and macho. Law, Mara, Zeta-Jones, even Tatum provide satisfactions one won’t get from the likes of Stallone, Schwarzeegger, or Statham.

Of course Soderbergh, whose career this alleged swan song is making people mull over, has tried many genres and done well at most of them. Even spectacular bores like Che have been controversial and praised. But when you look back over the whole trajectory you may begin to wonder if he ever cared deeply about any of it. The seeming promise of Sex, Lies, and Videotape grew out of the discomfort and voyeurism it contained, the regional setting, and the freshness and promise of a filmmaker who was not going to settle on a real style. He has often plumped instead for genre pastiches, as in his previous movies,Contagion andHaywire. Side Effects, like its disease-scare predecessor Contagion, isn’t really saying anything. Traffic was breathless and exciting, but it was nothing more than a remake of a good British mini-series. It and Erin Brokovich deal superficially with issues in glib pop terms, but the commitment isn’t there, the subject matter used up as fodder for thrillers. Soderbergh is a smooth operator, when what we really want is edge, intensity, and caring.

Maybe better in the end are the director’s more experimental small budget efforts like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience that few saw, where Soderbergh took some chances. The most enjoyable efforts were the patently goofy comic caper movies whose fun grew from byplay among stars like Clooney and Pitt, again genre pastiches (of the Rat Pack Ocean’s movie) and worked till they’d worn thin. Of some Soderbergh movies the less said the better. Others, like Underneath, King of the Hill, Out of Sight and The Limey, we’d like to remember better and would if there were a coherent pattern and style to unify them, which there is not. Soderbergh is, overall, surprisingly competent, partly through his savvy in maintaining control over his finished products. But he is like a lounge pianist who can play any tune you throw at him, but will never get to do a recital. It’s the nature of the film criticism game that if you went to the right film school you may talk of the “formalist rigor” of this “last” Soderbergh movie, but if you’re more Old School you will see it, as I do, as another example of his “cynical banality.”

UK release for Side Effects: 8th March 2013.

DIRECTOR: STEPHEN SODERBERGH
WRITER: JOHN Z. BURNS
STARS: ROONEY MARA, CHANNING TATUM, JUDE LAW, CATHERINE ZETA-JONES, VINESSA SHAW
RUNTIME: 106 MINS APPROX
COUNTRY: USA

Film Rating: ★★½☆☆

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