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The Adverse Side Effects of Steven Soderbergh's Movie Career

Entertainment One Films

Side effects: It’s a curious term, suggesting an assured central purpose, with some collateral consequences—like you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs? Or is it possible that “side effects” is a delusional escape clause, that all effects are part of each other? A side effect may make you ill; but you were sick already.

In 1956, Nicholas Ray directed a movie called Bigger Than Life in which James Mason played a schoolteacher with so painful an illness he was put on a new drug, cortisone. The pain went but it was replaced by mood swings and mania. Or was it just that that side of the teacher was freed by the drug? Mason was extraordinary in the film, and Ray, using CinemaScope and color for vital signs, made the domestic drama into a diagnosis of mental fragility in the allegedly secure age of Eisenhower.

Fifty-seven years later, maybe half the people in a theatre watching Side Effects are on some medication. In advance, the movie sounds intriguing, and it is written by Scott Z. Burns and directed by Steven Soderbergh, who collaborated on Contagion, an effective if routine medical procedural. This film seems to be a study of what happens to a young wife, Emily (Rooney Mara), under such stress that she is put on a new drug by a psychiatrist, Dr Banks. Jude Law as this shrink is a stretch, but Rooney Mara as a depressed woman seems a natural. Still, her upset is confusing. Emily’s husband has just come out of prison, where he served time for insider trading. He now seems inclined to return to his old ways, with a man he met in prison who has exciting ideas. The woman is on the brink of suicide: She alerts a cop that she’s thinking she might throw herself under a subway train; and then she drives her car into the wall of an underground parking garage. We see it; a parking attendant sees it.

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Cathrine Zeta-Jones as Victoria Seibert

But she doesn’t kill herself, so Banks takes on her case. He thinks she needs to stay in hospital, but no, she has to leave for her husband’s sake. So she asks to be put on drugs. One thing leads to another, and when regular drugs don’t work, she gets “Ablixa”. This is Rooney Mara, the girl with the wounded eyes, who is acting like a warning signal. She sleepwalks and then one day when her husband comes home she turns from cutting up red peppers and puts the knife in him several times in important places.

Writers reviewing films are supposed not to spoil the endings of pictures—but what do you do when movies have spoiled and trashed themselves? There are early clues in the film to suggest that the psychiatrist is a fool, while the patient is not; and Mara is a better actor than Law. The side effects we have been promised have nothing to do with medication and mental condition, and everything to do with the kind of hokey criminal intrigue that once attended actresses like Joan Crawford.

Every pregnant issue is abandoned. These would include how we make a bargain with a rescuing drug that has side effects; how the medication is linked, or not, to psychotherapy; how the drug companies push their new products on doctors; and the very delicate legal and ethical position for the therapist. Steven Soderbergh was not obliged to make a film about those subjects. But that’s the film he begins, so he merits more than regret over dumping them. The virus in Contagion was not a setup for a commercial killing. The “tragic” plight of the wife here is a hoax. Soderbergh should be ashamed and Rooney Mara might have been dissuaded from taking the part.

Once Side Effects gets into its crime story, medication is swept aside by movie nonsense. The storyline goes into tangles that have to be dealt with very rapidly if the audience is not to start laughing. Catherine Zeta-Jones appears as a caricature over which even Joan Crawford might have had second thoughts. It’s during her baleful and monotonous performance that you recall how Zeta-Jones recently admitted she was herself vulnerable to bipolar disorder. With parts like this, her condition is not going to be helped. As for Rooney Mara, she and her character “act” in ways that have no inkling of how close to disturbance acting can come.

It’s an ugly mess, a rotten film, and yet some observers are being gentle with it because it may mark Steven Soderbergh’s retirement from directing pictures. He is only 50, and he is a success and an organizing figure in the film business. He has worked hard, but he seems to feel that filmmaking is moving in directions that do not hold his interest. Quentin Tarantino has made similar noises about turning it in as a director. People with their talent and energy have every right to change their mind. Soderbergh has functioned as an enabler and a producer; he helped bring Far from HeavenConfessions of a Dangerous MindSyrianaGood Night and Good LuckMichael Clayton and We Need to Talk About Kevin to the screen. All of those projects are serious and unusual, yet stronger in outline than they are on screen.

But they were made in a difficult time for serious pictures, and Soderbergh is not just a support to those projects, he is editor and cinematographer on many of his own films. Moreover, he has been a spokesman for the principle that a good director makes a deal— with the business and with himself. He does some films for the system so he can do others for himself. Thus, Soderbergh over the years has done the very profitable Ocean’s films to build a trust that will let him make the two-part CheTraffic, and Solaris.

That seems like an excellent film school model, and Soderbergh has made several mid-ground films that are enjoyable and provocative: Erin Brockovich, Out of Sight and sex lies and videotape, a landmark for the hope that small, independent films could win prizes and make money. So this is a compromise in which the business feels friendly to Soderbergh. Personally and professionally, he has never come close to being the creative threat that David Lynch, Altman, early Scorsese, John Cassavetes, Nicholas Ray, and Orson Welles delivered. If it’s a going-away offering, Side Effects is the sadder in that its stupid deal with us only exposes the forlorn place of “entertainment” in our culture. That’s another way of saying that in Soderbergh’s time, cable television has found a way to be risky, tough and compelling while even brave movies cop out. The adroit compromise that so many have aspired to can be the system’s way of gelding its best rebels. Side Effects is empty and forgettable. If you want a work in which medication saves and disrupts a person (and even a state) go to Homeland.