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Director’s big-screen swan song out of tune

Sonderbergh's 'Side Effects' fails to live up to his usual standards

POSTED: February 7, 2013 1:00 a.m.

Steven Soderbergh has built one of my favorite careers of all time. Few directors have ever or will ever match the quantity, quality and diversity of his work.

Since he first announced his presence with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape” in 1989, he has directed 27 feature films plus numerous shorts and television episodes. I don’t know of another contemporary director who has managed that pace for the same period of time.

But Soderbergh is not a typical director. He is the model of a complete filmmaker, mastering every aspect of filmmaking.
He often serves as his own cinematographer and camera operator (this is exceedingly rare), edits many of his own movies and has scripted several films. He has also worked steadily as a producer since the late 1990s.

His work shows incredible range, too. His career highs include “Out of Sight,” “The Limey,” “Erin Brockovich,” “Traffic,” the “Ocean’s Eleven” trilogy and “Contagion.”

Soderbergh has also used the protection of his box office successes to pursue riskier projects with little commercial appeal.

After working with a cast of huge stars in “Ocean’s Twelve,” he used an amateur cast in the surprisingly compelling thriller “Bubble” (2006). A year later, he made the film noir “The Good German,” set in post-World War II Berlin and shot in black and white.

He followed “Ocean’s Thirteen” (2007) with a two-part biopic of Che Guevara that clocks in at just under five hours. He then cast adult actress Sasha Grey in “The Girlfriend Experience” (2009) and in the same year released the beguiling, ambiguous whistleblower comedy “The Informant!”

Soderbergh has recently turned to more conventional genre pieces, bringing something novel to each one.

“Contagion” is a disaster movie built around a viral epidemic, but Soderbergh avoids the hyperbole and predictability of the genre. “Haywire” is a rogue spy movie made unique by the casting of mixed martial arts star Gina Carano.

Yes, Mr. Soderbergh has been a busy man. You’d think all of that work would eventually wear a person down, wouldn’t you?

Well, it turns out it does.

Soderbergh has famously announced that he will soon retire from filmmaking. His final film will be the Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra,” to be released on HBO later this year.

“Side Effects” is therefore Soderbergh’s theatrical swan song, and if this movie proves anything, it’s that Soderbergh does need a break. He has always managed to bring something special to each of his projects — until now.

This psychological thriller begins with a promising enough premise. Emily (Rooney Mara) has waited loyally while her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) serves a prison sentence for an insider trading conviction.

Martin returns home, and Emily’s depression suddenly rears its head with lethal results. She begins seeing psychiatrist Dr. Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes a new medication. Soon, Emily is embroiled in a murder trial, and the question is whether she acted consciously or was sleepwalking, one of the side effects of the drug.

As a straightforward genre piece, the movie fits with Soderbergh’s recent work, except it lacks the immediacy, plausibility and expert compositions that are his trademarks. In a way, the movie is the polar opposite of “Magic Mike.” In that movie, Soderbergh transformed an inherently schlocky story into an earnest drama.

“Side Effects,” however, begins as a solid thriller but devolves into something on par with “Wild Things” or “Body Double.” It’s lurid, exploitative and unintentionally hilarious.

Soderbergh’s place in the pantheon of great modern American filmmakers is already cemented. I hope his retirement turns into an extended vacation, because I think the man has more good work to offer.

But if we really are witnessing the end of his career, then it’s a shame that “Side Effects” will be the last time we go to a theatre to see a Soderbergh film.

It’s worth only a footnote in his biography, and it isn’t worth the price of a movie ticket.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.


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