Steven Soderbergh has been making movies lately at a pace that feels almost compulsive, and his recent announcement that his latest film will be his last should probably be understood as an addict’s unlikely-to-succeed attempt to go cold turkey, rather than a genuine retirement. Soderbergh is 50, healthy, and a master of the swift and under-budget shoot. He’s also a non-perfectionist, more than happy to take up all kinds of scripts and stories and conceits, and shrug off a failed project by turning quickly to a new one. It’s possible, I suppose, that someone with this profile could be content to spend the next few decades painting and reading and living off his residuals. But I give it five years at the outside before he’s back behind the camera.
If we take him at his word, though, and treat this month’s thriller Side Effects as his big-screen valedictory, then Soderbergh is going out in an unusual way: not with a bang or a whimper, but with a movie that would probably rank close to the middle in any best-to-worsting of his oeuvre.
Although his debut film, 1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape, forever branded him as the prince of indie cinema, Soderbergh has generally done his best work in a more crowd-pleasing register, whether in thrillers such as Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven or message movies such as Erin Brockovich and Traffic. His worst movies tend to be his offbeat experiments (The Girlfriend Experience, Full Frontal) and his self-conscious grasps at greatness (the soporific Solaris, the interminable Che). Soderbergh is never quite conventional, but he’s at his most reliable when he’s working at giving an old formula or genre an unexpected twist.
In Side Effects, the twist is that you don’t know for a long time what kind of film you’re watching. We begin with Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a haunted-looking New York wife who’s about to welcome her husband (Channing Tatum) home from a four-year prison stint for insider trading. Once he brought her happiness — and a sailboat, a swanky house in Greenwich, the works — but now his homecoming triggers what looks like a massive depressive episode: She breaks down in public, wanders too close to subway trains, and crashes her car into the wall of the parking garage beneath the apartment they’ve been downsized into.
This last incident puts her in the hospital and brings her to the attention of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), an overstretched, ingratiating shrink with a sideline in pharmaceutical trials. Banks agrees to treat her rather than commit her, and soon she’s working her way down the Zoloft-Paxil-Prozac list, before finally finding stability and relief with Ablixa, a (fictional) new entrant in the antidepressant market. The only side effect is sleepwalking, which worries her husband but seems like a small price to pay — until something ghastly and unthinkable happens during one of her somnambulist sessions, and both Banks and his wonder drug come under suspicion and attack.
Up until the horrific hinge moment, and then for a little ways beyond, Side Effects feels like it’s setting up a critique of our culture’s pharmaceutical obsessions. Dr. Banks’s consulting gig, the well-meaning women who babble to Emily about their own life-changing pills over drinks and in the workplace bathroom, the “Ablixa” pen that Emily’s former psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) hands to Banks when he goes to consult with her about his new patient, the sinister edge to her sleepwalking — it all evokes an air of medicalized dread, and primes the audience to expect a lurking Big Pharma villain, or a Traffic-style panorama of the drug culture that the law doesn’t try to fight.
But all this sociological business turns out to be mostly misdirection. Side Effects is ultimately about old-fashioned sin rather than newfangled chemistry experiments. Banks may seem like an agent of pharmaceutical seduction, but he’s actually a much older fictional type — the film-noir patsy, who only gradually awakens to the role that he’s really been cast in.
What’s revealed by that awakening, and by his subsequent transformation into a driven gumshoe, shrinks the movie’s canvas from the sociological to the personal, and burns away the depressive fog of Emily’s suicidal period with the lurid glare of melodrama. This payoff sometimes teeters on the edge of the ridiculous, and there are ways in which the movie seems initially to be better than the noir it finally becomes. But there was enough in the movie’s cool professionalism and layered performances to hold me to the end — and to make me grateful, in advance, for the Soderbergh comeback that I foresee lurking just a few years down the road.