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Side Effects is set in New York City, but it barely looks like it. Steven Soderbergh, acting as always as his own cinematographer, makes the city look colder and more modern than ever, putting his characters in front of anonymous glass buildings and generic streets, robbing the city of its character and warmth at every turn. It's a brutally effective choice for what he claims is his final theatrical release, a twisty and surprisingly sexy thriller that, despite its heat, is actually about how cold and disconnected the world can be.
The film, written by Soderbergh's frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns, is being sold as a tense drama about evil pharmaceutical companies and the beautiful young woman Emily (Rooney Mara) who becomes their victim, but that's barely the beginning of it. To talk about much about how Catherine Zeta-Jones, playing Emily's former psychiatrist Dr. Siebert, fits into the story would be spoiling too much. It even hard to talk about Channing Tatum, who plays Emily's white collar criminal husband newly released from jail, and whose gentle goodness Soderbergh once again brings out beautifully, but with sinister results.
Hopefully it's not unfair to reveal that Jude Law, not Mara, is the true star of the film, playing the psychiatrist she turns to when she falls into depression after her husband's return. He prescribes her the drug Ablixa for what seem like the right reasons, but it's not hard to see the factors that might lead him astray-- fancy lunch meetings with drug reps, offers of cash from pharmaceutical companies who want his seal of approval, and a wife (Vinessa Shaw) and kid who need his support. When the Ablixa causes some tragic, uh, side effects for Emily, Law's Dr. Banks seems like a well-meaning guy blindsided by a bad drug… but, again, like those shiny corporate surfaces on New York City skyscrapers, what's beneath it is a whole lot more complicated.
After stellar supporting work in Anna Karenina and Soderbergh's own Contagion, Law slips marvelously into the main role here, a would-be hero of his own story who is also, clearly, unraveling. He's well-matched by Mara, whose implacable stillness makes her seem quiet and enigmatic, until it's too late to recognize what was actually happening. The story that surrounds the two of them is more of a mixed bag. It is satisfying to watch Soderbergh tighten the screw on the audience, leading us in one direction then dropping us off a cliff, sliding in new character motivations and backstory at finely tuned moments. But where the story goes isn't necessarily as satisfying as where you thought it would, and though the film still leaves room for some pretty scathing commentary on the pharmaceutical industry, it's ultimately more about the tingling thrills than a larger social purpose. It didn't have to be Traffic, but it could have used a bit more heft to fill in the gaps.
If Soderbergh is indeed retiring, this will be his swan song in the movie theaters, and a not entirely inappropriate one-- the crisp digital cinematography, fine performances and air of cynicism about the modern world are perfectly Soderberghian. But it's more of a clean shot down the middle than one of Soderbergh's wild curveballs, like The Informant! or Magic Mike, that make him great. In the end it might be the upcoming HBO film Behind the Candelabra, a Liberace biopic, that is the best way to Soderbergh fans to say goodbye to this iconoclastic, irreplaceable filmmaker.