Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh

Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh

Side Effects is the new thriller from Steven Soderbergh about a young woman’s (played by Ronney Mara) world being turned around when a drug prescribed by her psychiatrist (played by Jude Law) has unexpected side effects.

Similar to Lian Johnson’s Looper last year, Side Effects is a film that continually mutates its genome and plays its surprises based off the audience’s familiarized expectations of genre convention. I did not know anything about the film going in. In its first act, I thought it was a serious issue-tainment film about the modern practice of prescription medicine. To the end of the first third, it shifted into a new place. By the mid-point, I just stopped trying to guess where it was going to go and decided to just enjoy the ride. I was on the edge of my seat and did not have any grasp of what was to come. Where it ends up is insane and it will divide audiences but I much rather credit the ride more than the final destination.

Rooney Mara plays the pain of depression in a very realistic fashion. At times, it felt like watching a documentary. That’s how real she played it. This performance could have easily fit into a serious drama about having depression if they chose to continue with the first third of the issue-tainment portion.

Jude Law has the heaviest task to do because he balances a lot of the film as it goes through its many tonal shifts. As the psychiatrist character, he is the most reliable character the audience can trust and there is a lot less wiggle room for his character to suddenly change along with the genre shifting or plot twists. He manages them well and does a good job anchoring the film as it gets crazier in the third act.

I haven’t seen Chicago but Catherine Zeta-Jones’ acting in the past has always been distracting to me because she’s constantly preening for the camera. She is too aware of the camera positions and constantly adjusts how much to tilt her head, dilate her pupils or purse her lips for each shot (she’s doing up in the poster! See above). It’s like she’s constantly posing for still-based fashion photography slideshow instead of performing for a time-based forward-motion medium. It doesn’t help the story move forward if you’re constantly asking the audience to ogle over you. Yes, you are pretty, I get it. Kudos to you! I know I am ranting now, but that’s how frustrated it made me.

That aside, she is also playing up a campiness that seems tonally incongruent to the other performances in the film. It’s in her tongue-in-cheek delivery of the dialogue. She’s the odd one out of the entire cast and threatens the overall quality of the movie. Fortunately her part is a supporting one and she manages through the film on wafer thin ice.

Steven Soderbergh says this is his last film. Not that I really ever believe it when any director/celebrity/athlete say they’re retiring anyways. Side Effects is a decent way to go out but I certainly hope this isn’t his last film.

Related Reviews
Behind the Candelabara by Steven Soderbergh
Haywire by Steven Soderbergh

Looper by Rian Johnson

Looper by Rian Johnson

Time travel is invented by the year 2074 and, though immediately outlawed, is used by criminal organizations to send those they want killed 30 years into the past where they are killed by “loopers”, assassins paid with silver bars strapped to their targets. Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a looper, encounters himself when his older self (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to be killed.

First, to get this out of the way… the Bruce Willis make-up on Joseph Gordon-Levitt did not bother me. I stared at it for a while and eventually my eyes tuned to it. I can understand people being distracted by this but it ultimately works as a story device.

In short, Looper is a well-made science fiction actioner that asks its big questions while retaining its fun factor. The best thing it has going for it is that the film is hyper aware of movie genre conventions and chooses to play with them.

Ten minutes into the film, I was suddenly becoming very aware of the film’s influences, including Blade Runner, Terminator, and a Twilight Zone episode called It’s a Good Life. (There probably are more I haven’t named. I invite you to name more.) By the second shift, I was aware that this is part of the film’s design. Most movie-going audiences are pretty familiar with film genres at this point. Looper is aware that your mind is thinking back to another film you have seen, and the film uses that thought train to surprise you. Every time I had an idea of where the story was going, the film would mutate it’s genome, tonally shifting into a completely new territory of genre.

I have read that the genre shifting has been the major reason why a lot of people dislike the movie. It didn’t bother me because what really won me over ultimately was the film’s energy. Yes, the film a crackling independent film feel to it that was visceral and fresh in how the story was told and paced. Every time the story made its tonal shifts, I was renewed with excitement and found myself going along with it again and again. I even found myself excited by the camera movements during an action scene, particularly what they choose to show on and off camera.

The common time paradox issue in time travel stories is addressed by literally having a scene where its two leads sit down, discuss the science of it and arrive to the agreement that it does not make a lot of sense, but ask the audience to go along with it anyways. And that’s the key point to whether audiences will enjoy Looper: whether you choose to go along with it.

In the end, the pacing never lets its big existential questions settle in to ever let you really ponder deep thoughts about them, but that’s the point. It’s delivering a fun ride. And it’s plenty fun!

Oh, and by the way, Jeff Daniels was a great villain.