Side Effects marks the retirement of Steven Soderbergh as a director, the end of a magnificent and diverse career. It’s been a blast seeing such an assault of memorable cinema since his first feature length film, Sex, Lies and Videotape. The famed auteur has managed to always mix big blockbusters with personal pet projects or experiments. For every Out of Sight or The Informant! was a Full Frontal, Solaris, or Bubble on the stove. For ever commercial romp like Ocean’s or Magic Mike, was a modern noir film like The Limey, a political biopic about Che, or getting inside the life of a high priced call girl in The Girlfriend Experience. Soderbergh’s films all come with fascinating points of view, bring very distinct voices, and provoke challenging conversations afterwards. All of his films were beautifully shot, always featuring the talent of both expert and young. And the atmosphere of cool is never far from the surface. So where does Side Effects lie in his decorated resume?
Perhaps right in the middle of it all, where all of his talents and ideas converge and achieve that balance of high polish and something to say. Where there’s something worthy of a heightened discussion, yet not preaching a singular solution. Angles not always considered from staunch supporters of a talking point–regardless of the side–are brought to the table for the viewer to make a more informed opinion, to navigate through gray areas and wrestle with those difficult topics. Those are my favorite Soderbergh films, executed superbly in Traffic, Erin Brockovich, and Contagion.
Soderbergh’s final film stars some of his favorite recent staples like Jude Law and Channing Tatum; reunited with Catherine Zeta-Jones (Traffic) and Vinessa Shaw (Fallen Angels) and placed at the front of the stage, an actress shooting up the ranks, Rooney Mara (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Side Effects is no doubt a thinking man’s film with Soderbergh’s distinguishable visual elegance present throughout even in the poorly lit corners of a mental ward. Viewers are bombarded with hotbed topics like the drug companies, treating mental depression with pharmaceuticals, and patient-to-doctor relationship, are challenged to form an opinion on the matter and weigh it all as something new walks in from the side door, left open by all of the other predominating factors.
We are introduced to Emily Taylor (Mara), a woman about to reunite with her husband Martin (Tatum). Martin is released from prison after serving time for insider trading and as a result from the scandal, the sudden rise and very public steep drop, Mara developed a case of depression. As Martin begins to pieces his old life back in the financial world, Emily is uncertain how to receive her husband back after all this time spent away, supporting the both of them and attempts to kill herself. At the hospital she meets Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law) who is insistent on a routine overnight stay and psychological evaluation. Emily talks her way out of the extended hospital stay and in return agrees to come into Banks’ patient hours during the day, since seeing a psychiatrist (Jones) helped her through her depression while Martin was in jail. After trying to supplement her visits with prescribed anti-depressants, Emily begins experiencing various side effects such as vomiting and reduced sex drive. All of that changes when she asks to change her prescription to a relatively new drug on the market, Ablixa.
Different drugs can be designed to solve the same problem but they’re not all made the same, generics included. How one’s body reacts to one drug from another is trial and error chemistry with your body, and further complicates matters if other prescriptions are involved. Those reading who have been on prescription drugs will agree that if there’s a drug that can assist with a problem, it is easy to rely or push through whatever few side effects may come as a result, but to what end is one willing to risk that? That’s what frames Side Effects and is the arena where the viewer is placed. Because when Emily has a terrifying side effect to Ablixa, one not discussed in great detail between Dr. Banks, the price is huge. The added cloud of depression is stirred in since there is no progress that can be charted with numbers, no cholesterol, or blood sugar to see decline–just the trusted words between two people and the words, “I’m feeling better,” a reality that’s as terrifying to the patient as it is to the doctor.
It takes around forty minutes to develop the strong base of this drama, before one of the main characters begins surveying the landscape, hoping to find a loose brick on a carefully constructed situation. To discuss any more of the story would ruin the film’s tapestry of pointing fingers between the patient, the doctors, and the drugs. The threads converge on a large, tight but logical knot, where we wonder if there is a perpetrator in all of this or if there are many victims of circumstance. Sterling acting performances by Mara, Law, Jones and Shaw as Dr. Banks’ wife shine through and sell the intricate plot to the finest detail. That long set up convinces us a dead end is the destination but instead finds an unexpected route of escape because it’s not the film’s responsibility to make you choose a side. And that’s the magic of Soderbergh’s films, and the usual great scripts he works with. Side Effects was written by Scott Z. Burns who scribed The Bourne Ultimatum, Contagion and The Informant! and reminds me of how Traffic had that similar dead end moment but out comes a clever resolution to make you reconsider. It’s rare to get that feeling from a film, yet that’s a centerpiece in much of Soderbergh’s work.
Coming into the theater, we all carry whatever preconceived notions of drugs, modern medicine, and psychiatry exist out there from various news sources. Because scientific journals that celebrate innovation in tiny insect-sized steps are not the newsmakers, it’s the scandals, the business and financial reports that help shape our opinions; don’t worry, that’s woven into the fabric of Side Effects too and it’s almost counting on viewers to have walk in with a mind already made up.
Like some of the best Soderbergh films, on top of the issues, the social dilemmas and real world relevance there’s comes a point when that fog of cool settles in and it turns into a movie–a real good movie, and the first satisfying one of its kind in 2013. Side Effects is the perfect 2012 palette cleanser, especially since the films at the beginning of the year are often forgettable. Let’s just hope that all that at some point in the distant future, while Soderbergh is finishing one of his future paintings, he’s given another chance to direct again, perhaps something like this or simply a story he can’t refuse. If not, well we can all be proud he walked away on a high note.