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Movie Review: Brainy and Sexy SIDE EFFECTS Showcases Steven Soderbergh at His Most Playful

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It\’s very hard to write about Steven Soderbergh\’s deceptive, teasing Side Effects without spoiling what makes the film so much fun; while Soderbergh and his Contagion screenwriter Scott Z. Burns certainly parcel out plot twists at steady intervals (including one so contrived that it crossed the line from ridiculous into flat-out audacious), the narrative tangles aren\’t as impressive as the overall structure of the film.  Very little of Side Effects is “original.”  You can mark the beats borrowed from other movies, but that\’s the fun.  It isn\’t theft – this is the melodrama as genre pastiche, and I bet Soderbergh and Burns cackled as they thought of ways to bring together their favorite movie tropes.  Outside of Quentin Tarantino, no one makes the art of referencing such a kicky delight.

Soderbergh structures his references around Side Effects\’ two poles: Rooney Mara and Jude Law.  The two actors dominate a different half of the movie, and Soderbergh modulates his game to their performances.  He opens with Mara\’s Emily Taylor, a former socialite whose status vanishes after her husband (Channing Tatum, in what amounts to a cameo favor for his old Haywire and Magic Mike collaborator) gets arrested for insider trading.  His crime and reintroduction to society have left deep scars in Emily\’s psyche, and Soderbergh mines a ridiculous amount of tension from her disintegrating mental state.

Credit must go to Mara, who makes you aware of the cracks fissuring under her skin without resorting to overt ticks and hysterics – it\’s in the way she\’ll stare for a beat too long, or how her emotions have a tendency to vanish from her face like a blank slate.  This is an amazingly controlled, internal performance, and in its subtle way, it\’s as strong as her lauded Girl with the Dragon Tattoo turn.

And Soderbergh enhances it through callbacks to other movies.  The airless, isolated way Emily responds to the world is very much of a piece with Julianne Moore\’s germaphobia in Safe, and the distrust Emily begins to feel towards her friends and family recalls Mia Farrow in Rosemary\’s Mary (a touchstone also reflected in David Holmes\’ very Rosemary\’s Baby-esque score); her mania then builds to a pitch that should be familiar to anyone familiar with Catherine Deneuve\’s Repulsion performance.  Hell, the opening helicopter shot deliberately apes the first scene from the great woman-in-peril chiller, Alfred Hitchcock\’s Psycho.

But this first half isn\’t just a portrait of a woman on the verge; Soderbergh uses it to riff on his own proselytizing ways.  A bonafide master of the social justice picture (Erin Brockovich, “K Street,” Traffic, The Informant, The Girlfriend Experience, and Contagion, to name a few), Soderbergh makes some lacerating swipes at Big Pharma, as Emily\’s troubles seem exacerbated by Ablixa, a mood-altering antidepressant hastily pushed through FDA testing.

It\’s this drug that provides the bridge into Side Effects\’ second half.  Emily starts taking Ablixa on the recommendation of Jude Law\’s unscrupulous psychiatrist – ever the “Breaking Bad” aficionado, Soderbergh calls Law\’s character “Jonathan Banks” as an ode to the fearsome character actor who co-starred on that great AMC program (Soderbergh also has David Costabile, the once-and-future Gale Boetticher, pop up in a tiny role as Tatum\’s former business partner) – and right when we start thinking that Soderbergh is going to use Mara\’s breakdown as a means to pillory Law and the whole pharmaceutical industry, Side Effects jumps the rails.

Let\’s just say that Emily does something awful, and the focus shifts to Banks, who finds himself besieged at all sides.  Whatever sociological and psychological pretenses the film seemed to harbor fall away; Banks\’ struggle gives Soderbergh license to traffic in high-quality, pulp nonsense.  The legal and professional troubles that Banks faces?  Shades of your garden-variety John Grisham novel.  The way Banks moves further down the rabbit hole in his dogged pursuit of the truth?  I couldn\’t help but think of great paranoid brain-twisters like The Parallax View or The Conversation.  And what about Catherine Zeta Jones\’ even more duplicitous shrink, who turns Side Effects into the kind of literate erotic thriller that Lawrence Kasdan and Adrian Lyne cut their teeth on in the 1980s (Body Heat, Fatal Attraction).

Lest you think “nonsense” is a dirty word, let me remind you that Hitchcock worked almost exclusively in nonsensical escapism, and he\’s still one of cinema\’s greatest architects.  Law plays Banks as a classic “wrong man” (see North by Northwest, Saboteur, Frenzy, and The Wrong Man) desperate to redeem his image in the eyes of the public – he emerges as a far more interesting hero because his morally questionable conduct has left him vulnerable to a crime he didn\’t commit.

The callbacks come so fast that we almost miss Soderbergh\’s endgame: he\’s mashing all these notes up because he can.  In a way, Side Effects feels like a final exam for film buffs; Soderbergh is the smartest kid in the room, and the more familiar you are with his cinematic obsessions, the more you\’ll appreciate how skillfully he tweaks and samples these established genre modes.

However, like his equally playful Haywire, Side Effects isn\’t a postmodern art piece.  Soderbergh wants you to enjoy these clichés even as he\’s deconstructing them, and he concludes the oft-lunatic proceedings with a final line that achieves a wry perfection.  It\’s rare that we get a thriller that\’s content to tie off its loose ends with a deadpan wink, but so it goes with Steven Soderbergh.  If Side Effects is his last theatrical feature – as he has suggested – then perhaps we should respond to the picture as a more bittersweet delight, but the movie\’s so much fun it\’s hard to do anything, save sit back and laugh.

Universal\’s Blu-ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack presents Side Effects in a gorgeous digital transfer.  Soderbergh gets digital cinematography better than anyone (minus, say, David Fincher), and he manipulates the image to striking effect.  The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track pushes along the mood of aural dread that the picture wants to cultivate.

Only the supplements disappoint.  There\’s no substance here: a jokey, 2.5-minute “making-of” and fake commercials for the film\’s fictional antidepressant.  Soderbergh used to give great commentary – what happened?

Side Effects streets on May 21st.  Click HERE for Amazon\’s listing.