Steven Soderbergh recently announced his retirement from feature filmmaking. It was a bleak day for cinephiles who appreciate his approach to "genre" movies. If Soderbergh has proven anything over the last three decades, it's that any broad concept can be executed with professionalism and style.
Soderbergh is an Oscar winner who's made plenty of prestige dramas, but he's also explored many other genres, including caper comedy (Ocean's Eleven), science fiction (Solaris) and procedural thriller (Contagion). In 2012 he tackled both a vengeance quest (Haywire) and a movie about male strippers (Magic Mike). His storytelling makes each of his films feel elegant, even when the premise seems preposterous.
Side Effects would elicit eye rolls if pretty much anyone else had made it. After spending four years in prison for insider trading, Martin (Channing Tatum) reunites with his wife, Emily (Rooney Mara). A suicide attempt lands her in the care of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). After several medications fail to help, the doctor prescribes a new pill that seems to put her on the road to normalcy. But one side effect has terrible consequences.
For much of Side Effects' first half, Soderbergh deftly steers us toward the tragic event foreshadowed in the opening shot. By highlighting both Emily's struggles to hold herself together and Jonathan's interactions with pharmaceutical company reps, the screenplay (by Contagion's Scott Z. Burns) makes it unclear which character will ultimately be the focus of the story. The cinematography and sound-design choices, such as the ominous echoes of Jonathan's apartment, hint that corporate malfeasance is about to backfire.
Then Side Effects abruptly turns sideways. The nature of that shift veers into spoiler territory, so I won't share the specifics. I can say that a key plot point complicates the roles and motivations of the characters, turning the story into more of a detective thriller than a morality play. While this about-face is surprising, it's somewhat disappointing that the film doesn't address deeper questions about the consequences of America's magic-pill culture.
Yet surface-level satisfaction is something Soderbergh rarely has trouble achieving. His editing is so smooth that it's almost possible to ignore that he's spoon-feeding important clues to the audience. He leads his actors to performances that convey a spiky realism, even in the middle of a plot based on an elaborate conspiracy.
All in all, Side Effects is a kinda-dumb movie that nevertheless feels smart. It's also the kind of picture that results when a filmmaker respects his audience enough to work his hardest on everything he does. I'll miss Soderbergh even more the next time a film is treated as "just a genre movie" rather than a story worth telling well.