The Oscar-winning director of “Traffic” has declared that “Side Effects” is his theatrical swan song — he’ll no longer direct films, though he will likely direct theater and television. (His next movie, the Liberace bio-pic “Behind the Candelabra” starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, will air on HBO this year.) Whether or not Soderbergh’s “retirement” turns out to be a Stephen King-style sabbatical, or a Gene Hackman-style actual retirement probably won’t be answered anytime soon.
So, unfortunately, we have to deal with what’s on screen in “Side Effects” — a mostly unsatisfying thriller that strenuously attempts to uncover something interesting in a mix of pharmaceutical culture commentary, stylish filmmaking and creakily conventional twists.
Rooney Mara (“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) stars as Emily, a young woman battling depression at the same time her husband (Channing Tatum) is released from jail after serving time for a white collar crime that inconveniently interrupted their marriage. After a frightening attempt to kill herself, Emily starts to see psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). He prescribes medication. The medication has unpredictable side effects, including numerous plot twists that will be all too predictable to aficionados and even some casual fans of the thriller genre.
It could be argued that Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who previously collaborated on “The Informant!” and “Contagion”) have made a sly commentary on America’s over-dependence on anti-depressants, or perhaps a sly commentary on the paranoia that surrounds pharmaceutical side effects. But once the end credits roll, it’s clear that they’ve basically created a late night Cinemax thriller with primetime Cinemax production values and actors (and a lot less sex and nudity).
Instead of reviving or reinvigorating the erotic thriller, “Side Effects” continues Soderbergh’s recent curious streak of sucking the fun out of whatever genre he’s attempting. There was a time when he was a crowd-pleasing filmmaker capable of making complex entertainments like “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Erin Brockovich” look easy. And few directors in recent history can match Soderbergh’s astonishing consecutive run of “Out of Sight,” “The Limey,” “Brockovich,” “Traffic” and “Ocean’s” (released in a period of just four years!).
But ever since he followed the big budget sequel “Ocean’s Twelve” with the intriguing micro-indie “Bubble,” Soderbergh has been retreating more and more inside his own head, and his work — while remaining intellectually engaged and technically precise — has become colder and more alienating. Judging by the undesirable CinemaScore grades his recent wide releases have received, audiences have not been pleased: “Haywire” (D+), “Contagion” (B-), “The Informant!” (C-). Last summer’s “Magic Mike” managed an unremarkable but acceptable B, presumably because viewers were satisfied enough seeing movie and TV stars playing male strippers, not with the limp noodle romance between Channing Tatum and his wooden love interest, Cody Horn.
How a film plays to opening weekend audience is no judge of quality or long term durability, but it does speak to a director’s ability to captivate a crowd. And in the case of a filmmaker like Soderbergh, who claims to be frustrated with the Hollywood game, it may help explain why he’s looking for a premature escape at the age of 50.
It’s too bad Soderbergh is “going out” on a film that’s most reminiscent of forgettable early career hiccup “The Underneath.” But if “Side Effects” — slick, but empty; buoyed somewhat by Law’s solid performance, but otherwise disposable — represents where he’s at right now, it may be best to explore alternative arenas to tell stories.
Longform television could be the key to restoring the involving narratives and rich characters that populated the films of his heyday. In Soderbergh’s case, there’s reason to hope that “retirement” will have its own, happier, side effects.