Side Effects can’t be accused of cleverness because, depending on who you’re talking to, its craftsmanship is hopelessly clumsy or uncannily on-point or cunning to the point of manipulation. Put another way: vintage Soderbergh. Is his aim gamesmanship, pleasure, homage? What? Your guess, Dear Viewer: good as mine.
It’s not a film that upsets me. You take its punches because they feel good. There are real miss-steps and red-herring miss-steps, if you know what I mean. I’m possibly delivering a spoiler (ahem) when I observe that Catherine Zeta Jones’ sad-bad performance (was she high?) could be directorial meta-cunning. Directing a great-actress badly for the greater good of your movie? Damn, Steve: that’s kinda cold.
Some will call Soderbergh’s game Hitchcockian. Kind to Hitchcock, I say. Side Effects is a good one. At a point, the film has a choice between being a moral, topical, critical work, or a sorta sophisticated fun one, and chooses fun without hesitation or remorse. It’s a choice many films (directors) never have to make! How can we judge? (Except, sigh, I do.) On my first viewing, I’m comfortable accusing Soderbergh of victim-blaming.
Because a moral (preachy) chore (failure) might be more noble than an intriguingly informal (if not warm) popcorn twister. Might. You can tell me if I’m wrong. There’s the obvious problem that no one will watch your moral-chore film…
While we’re on the subject of temperature though, the film is so damn cold you can’t not mention it. I recalled Match Point. Part of what makes calling Side Effects Hitchcockian is that it hands ole Alfred the monopoly on making ingenious little suspense/narrative candies out of a few extraordinary events in the lives of ordinary people. He doesn’t deserve it! I’m not a h8r but—he doesn’t deserve it.
Hitchcock’s got lots besides the mentioned, but that’s what Side Effects has got. You want details? Ohhh.
Jude Law is good. Rooney Mara is great. Catherine Zeta Jones is not. The scenes are good, tight, built, lean, fit, mobile. Channing Tatum is also good, but could never be called lean. The frames are often embarrassingly frank (maybe Stephen does need his own DP after all?) and the music is jarring enough to warrant its immediate removal. It’s that darn story that’s so good… Yes, the art of the screenplay is still alive, taking jabs at the mainstream when you least expect it.
But then, we have come to expect good things from Soderbergh. As for this being his last film, it wouldn’t be what you’d call a finale. He’ll be back. And we’ll welcome him with open arms. What a thinker. You admire, I think, in Soderbergh, a certain intersection between thinking and feeling, thinking and action, thinking and crying-out, thinking and scrambling.
The sin is picking up a contemporary moral issue, chewing on it, and then throwing it under the bus as soon as a good narrative moment reveals itself. God help all writers.