Over the last three decades, Steven Soderbergh has been the most versatile, not to mention hyperactive, of Hollywood directors and, as befits the movie that he has said will be his swan song, “Side Effects” showcases much of what the just 50-year-old filmmaker does best.
Soderbergh had often spoken of moving on. When I included him last year as one of 10 directors to watch I kind of assumed that, given his range, he would ultimately stick with cinema. (There’s one more movie in the can — a long-germinating Liberace biopic, “Behind the Candelabra,” with Michael Douglas as the flamboyant pianist and Matt Damon as his lover, will be cablecast on HBO.) But, even retired, Soderbergh serves an example. His intellectual curiosity, technical facility, and ease in moving back and forth between performance documentaries, star-studded studio pictures, low-budget experiments, genre flicks, blatant Oscar-bait, and unclassifiable cinematic “follies” like the “Solaris” remake and his four-hour “Che” (two of his strongest efforts, in my opinion) makes him a model modern filmmaker. Without him, his only two peers, Richard Linklater and Gus Van Sant, will be more or less out there by themselves.
“Side Effects,” which might be described as a psychiatric thriller (as “Contagion” was a forensic one), is a skilled, sveltely directed piece of work co-starring Rooney Mara, sans tattoo, as a young woman who commits an appalling crime while under the zombie influence of an experimental antidepressant drug, and Jude Law as her beleaguered, increasingly hysterical psychiatrist. Soderbergh semi-regular Catherine Zeta-Jones has a juicy supporting role as another shrink. The script, by Scott Z. Burns (who wrote “Contagion”), is laden with moral ambiguities: Does legal culpability lie with the doctor or the patient? What about the pharmaceutical companies? Who is the victim and how much consciousness is required to establish intent? What is acting anyway? (The latter is a long-standing Soderbergh concern and “Side Effects” derives considerable tension from the “performing” performance delivered by its small, thin, intense leading lady.)
Terse yet anecdotal, “Side Effects” moves smartly along; it’s maximally involving and skillfully atmospheric. Shot as usual by the director himself (under the name Peter Andrews), the action shifts from one mega institution to another (prison, hospital, facility for the criminally insane). The system is all encompassing and Manhattan’s chill solitude casts an additional pall. The city seems simultaneously grandiose and sedated. Still, there’s a certain glibness. For all the cosmic perspective afforded by Soderbergh’s soaring crane shots, the lift they provide is not sufficient to support the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. The great Hitchcock has been evoked by many reviewers. Critics will certainly be sorry to see Soderbergh go, but I doubt their flattery will persuade him to stay.
For all its rug-yanks and transference of guilt, “Side Effects” is less a master class in audience-manipulation than a throwback to the sweaty, character-driven thrillers of the Michael Douglas era. “Side Effects” has numerous points of contact with “Fatal Attraction” and “Basic Instinct.” Like them, it’s not particularly PC but unlike these much maligned, proudly florid crowd-pleasers, it lacks a certain unbridled nastiness. The palette is not the only thing that seems subdued in “Side Effects.” Perhaps this is the movie in which, preparing for a change, Soderbergh gave vent to his own depression.