“Side Effects” (2013) and Steven’s last stand
11 February 2013
According to Steven Soderbergh, Side Effects will be his last film — for a while, at least. “The tyranny of narrative is starting to frustrate me,” he explained to New York Magazine not long ago about his decision to do other forms of art. “Or at least narrative as we’re currently defining it. I’m convinced there’s a new grammar out there somewhere.”
I want to celebrate that decision. Just because Soderbergh’s so good at his craft doesn’t mean the work is necessarily enjoyable to him year after year. Anyone who’s read the Harry Hole novels by Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbø can see that you can be eminently skilled at something and yet find that your job is slowly killing you. And so, upon seeing this last Soderbergh film and wrangling for the last 24 hours with its ending … well, I think I’m okay with his taking a break.
After seeing the film with superior friend and excellent human being Aldine, we sidled up to a bar to debrief. (The timing of our debriefing was important, as we planned to follow up by stuffing ourselves so full of Ethiopian food as to be incapable of higher thought). The bartender asked if the film was good. What does one say to those questions?
Here’s a provisional answer: there’s a sweet spot in the film, during its second quarter or so, when you have no idea where the story is going. It keeps tipping out of your reach, tempting you with possibilities and then feinting in new directions. Is this going to be a story about a Lazy Psychologist? about the Bad Pharmaceutical Industry? about the Guilt And Responsibility? about the Subconscious Gone Wrong? When I say sweet spot, I mean that I stepped out of myself for the moment and wondered if this was going to be the best thriller ever.
I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? you see, this is how the tyranny of narrative works; I started telling you about Soderbergh’s last film, and then started telling you about the bartender who wanted to know whether it was good — and all because that’s how it followed in my life (except for the intervening 24 hours, in which Aldine and I had a successful trip to Nieman Marcus and drank more cocktails). I should at least offer up a squib of the film’s plot. A proper film comment always lays out the plot.
How’s this: Emily (Rooney Mara, looking not at all like a girl with a dragon tattoo) brings her husband home from prison after a term for insider trading, but all the while she’s slipping into a terrible depression, a “hopelessness,” she calls it. Not that anyone would doubt it, with her big eyes and little-girl teeth and pale, pale skin. In one particularly grim moment, she gets into her car and drive straight into a brick wall. In another even better moment, she accompanies her husband to an uncomfortable cocktail party on a yacht with some of his former colleagues, only to see herself distorted in a mirror and lose it.
The psychologist who takes her case, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), earnestly seeks out appropriate pharmaceutical help by ticking through a list of anti-depressants, many of which she has taken and rejected in the past for their debilitating side effects; he even consults with her prior psychiatrist Victoria (Catherine Zeta-Jones, doing an exaggerated version of “I am a professional”). Eventually they settle on a new one called Ablixa (oh, lordy, how I love that minor plot point alone).
Ablixa’s awesome. Emily gets her sex drive back, enjoys happy days in the park with her husband, and ceases feeling nauseated. The only side effect is an alarming tendency to sleepwalk. And thus the film hustles us toward that perfect sweet spot of the second 30 minutes or so, as it establishes a dark undertone to the narrative, gives us a horrifying scene of violence, and proceeds to pull us in different directions as the director inspires you with the pleasure of trying to guess where it’s going.
Now, I’ll tell you what I told the bartender: yes, it’s good. You always know when you walk in to a Soderbergh film that you’re going to be interested, that the cinematography will be unusually evocative, and that he’ll offer up some surprises.
But what I found so odd about Side Effects – and so disappointing — were the specific ways the film ultimately commits to a storyline, and the film’s overall determination to be as crystal clear as possible. And as that narrative emerges in all its clarity, you can’t help but feel disappointed. Not least because it trots out some old chestnuts (I won’t reveal them here, but honestly, Steven?); but most of all because you feel as if Soderbergh and his screenwriter, Scott Z. Burns, decided the whole story needed to be over-explained and wrapped up in an excessively tidy box with a bow, as if it was no longer a thriller about the unknowns of real life but in fact a repackaged Ocean’s Eleven in which we have clear good and bad guys.
Now, I get it about the tyranny of narrative. Even in the academic business we create narratives, so often adhering to one genre or another. But what I don’t understand is why someone in Soderbergh’s position would feel so tied to tidy, wrap-it-all-up tales given the vast storytelling creativity out there (to wit, this year’s The Master). I consider Soderbergh to be one of the most creatively free directors out there. Why doesn’t he experiment with alternative endings?
I’m complaining, and yet what he does with that early portion of the film — he toys with us in a way that’s so enjoyable to watch that I’m already looking forward to his return to directing.
One more note: during our drunken debriefing Aldine wanted to know my favorite Soderbergh films, but my phone’s battery had died and we couldn’t remember all of our favorites without internet assistance. So here’s a short list of mine, in rough order:
- Out of Sight (1998) — totally my favorite Soderbergh ever.
- Ocean’s Eleven (2001)
- Erin Brockovich (2000)
- The Informant! (2009)
- The Limey (1999)
- Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989)
Looking forward to seeing you back sometime soon, Steven, once you’ve got your groove back.