Wednesday, August 16, 2017

An Appreciation of Soderberg's 'Last' Movie "Side Effects"

Scene from Side Effects
It is likely that if you watch movie trailers, then you'll remember the Logan Lucky one. How could you not? It's the return of the great Steven Soderbergh, finally directing more movies after a brief hiatus that lead to two TV series; one he worked closely on (The Knick) and one he mostly produced (The Girlfriend Experience). Still as the credits rolled, it played through his most memorable hits: Ocean's 11, Ocean's 12, Ocean's 13, and Magic Mike. Not a bad line-up. Still, for a filmmaker who seems to never sleep, it seems odd that nobody talks about his last film: 2013's Side Effects. It may not have a moment as eye popping as Magic Mike's gyrating torsos, but it does have a lot that is underrated and overlooked. With Logan Lucky coming out on Friday, I felt the need to look back on the film he made before saying goodbye, at least for then. 

One of the great things about Soderbergh is that he is both singular and unexpected in what he does. He is as likely to release a horrific outbreak movie as he is a slapstick comedy starring Matt Damon. His skills run the entire spectrum, and his fearless approach to material is part of what makes him incredible. Speaking as Side Effects was knowingly advertised as his swan song, people had to wonder what his final grace notes would be. What would he do to encapsulate a career that started with a successful launch at Sundance with sex, lies, and videotape., and only went on to bigger things that included a double Best Director nomination in one year for Erin Brockovich and Traffic (the latter of which he won for). Even with crowd pleasers, Magic Mike proved his sustainability. So, what does he do? He creates a drama based around the pharmaceutical industry that is largely Hitchcockian and more understated than celebratory. Still, it's also a masterpiece.

Audiences seem to be dismissive of Side Effects, but it's really a film that plays into Soderbergh's strengths. The most noteworthy is an ensemble that includes lead performances by Jude Law and Rooney Mara. While the supporting cast features excellent work by Catherine Zeta Jones, Channing Tatum, Mamie Gummer, and Ann Dowd; it's important to recognize the chemistry of the two leads. While Law is the voice of wisdom here as a man wanting to take down drug companies, there is something mysterious about Mara. She ends up being arrested for murdering her husband while sleepwalking. It's a peculiar scenario, and one that continues to build upon questions. The movie eventually ends with a very artistic wraparound device in which Mara is seen staring out a window. At first, we wonder why she's doing it. By the end, we sympathize with her in a different way. It's the last image that Soderbergh was intentionally setting to film, and it created almost a cyclical nature of his entire career.

Mara was still fairly new to cinema in 2013, or at least reputably. She had received an Oscar nomination for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but hadn't really connected with audiences. In some ways, Side Effects reflects another turning point in her career. She has a doe-eyed approach to her dazed, "drug-addled" performance. She has a defensiveness to her innocent voice. It's hard to read her as being manipulative or doing anything that is as peculiar as her story suggests. While Law's story fits more into the traditional crime thriller, Mara's is that of a criminal trying to beat the odds and get out of a very uncomfortable situation. There's plenty of nuance to her that manages to hide her discomfort, even as she portrays it on screen through timid actions. One of the bigger crimes is that, at least to date, this is the only film that Soderbergh and Mara have worked on together. They compliment each other so well that it's almost ridiculous.

Even the cinematography and direction has a bit of a daze to it. The scenery around characters is often blurry, creating a nauseating effect as details blur and force the viewer to be more selective of what they look at. What the camera ends up focusing on often looks to be shot like a commercial for one of the pharmaceutical companies that is being parodied. The reliance on drugs is a constant discussion, and the film seems to implicitly create an addiction for that imagery as the story progresses. Mara's dazed look manages to make things even more sickly as the story becomes more intense. The score by Thomas Newman has an ambient quality that lands somewhere between peaceful and earache-inducing. Everything about the film creates an imbalance, and it manages to do so without ever actually creating that experience for the viewer. 

Soderbergh was always great at creating an ensemble and making them work hard while making it look easy. It's part of what makes Logan Lucky look so good. Still, his medical drama mystery Side Effects looked to be the end of the road for some time, even if his work on medical stories wasn't exactly over (see: The Knick). It's not entirely clear what he wanted to say with the film as an encapsulation of his career, but it did create a delightful mystery of a manipulative woman trying to cheat her way to success. In some ways, this is the same story as Gone Girl (minus the murder, and better?), which somehow got more press and analysis than Soderbergh's movie did. Still, it's a testament to his craft that he made a film that felt nauseous without being such featuring a great line-up of performances that show his craft. It is a film that is great from a story, acting, and technical standpoint. If it was his last movie, it would've been a high note, even if it would never be his most remembered work. 

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