Side Effects: Steven Soderbergh’s exercise in Nineties Sleaze
Steven Soderbergh came to fame with his stunning first film sex, lies, videotape (1989) which not only kickstarted American Independent cinema but also the commercialization of Sundance. Soderbergh wrote sex, lies, videotape in approximately 9 days and had funding from a cable station to produce the film. We’ve all seen sex, lies, videotape and of course love it and probably most of Soderbergh’s other films. He’s been regarded as the most purest example of a Hollywood director who oscillates between the “one for them” “one for me” (and then “one for her” with Magic Mike (2012)). His “one for them” (Ocean’s Trilogy) films tend to be just as good as his “one for me” films (The Girlfriend Experience (2009), and Bubble (2005)).
Looking back at his filmography I would have to admit that it is solid. Soderbergh should be proud of his directing career. Personally, I love sex, lies, videotape, The Limey (1999), the first Che film in 2008, and The Underneath (1995). He is a strange combination of auteur and anti-auteur because he has no discernible film style (mise-en-scene), thematic concerns, or storytelling method. One discernible trait of Soderbergh’s might be his tendency to make short, lean films with quick and witty dialogue and charismatic characters. Soderbergh’s anti-auteur tendency necessarily develops into its antithesis in the same way that Hemingway’s resolution to disavow “stylistic” writing created a style in itself. This is certainly an advantage that many filmmakers . Soderbergh is always interested in getting of the way so to speak of the story as written (Lem Dobs might disagree with him). He is always worried about doing something with the camera and editing that would somehow distract from the story being told. This is probably the purest Hollywood film style concern dating back to the thirties which then changed and accommodated to the particular context of the production period.
Side Effects, Soderbergh’s final film, is two films in one. The first 30-40 minutes is a narrative about depression, psychotherapy, and drugs. Each of these topics could motivate an entire 90 minute feature. Soderbergh, however, does not focus on either but rather uses them as a ruse, to steer the audience away from any clues as to what might happen in the final act. While, this film is certainly not one of the worst thrillers ever made, but to my mind it has the least guts. The surprises and revelations we discover in the final act of the film are only possible because the first 40 minutes is an entirely different film. Great thrillers, like the ones made by Fritz Lang, Hitchcock, and Jean-Pierre Melville, are great for many reasons and one reason is that they commit to the thriller genre from beginning to end and do not rely on flimsy plot twists to fool the audience. This is not to say the combining or screwing around with genre conventions is prohibited. But, it is to say that when you take yourself out of the thriller game so to speak in the first act of the film and then inform your audience that you are making a thriller, there is less at stake. The suspense is Side Effects does not come from building to a thrilling event but rather trying to figure out what the film will morph into next.
This is shoddy story telling. The film, however, has a consistent visual trope that Soderbergh felt would tie the disparate narratives together. Spoiler alert, it didn’t and I don’t know why he thought it would. The film is shot with extremely shallow focus throughout. Characters repeatedly walk into focus in the film and at one point the focus was so shallow that a character turned her head and her face become soft and then turned back in focus again. This technique for a few shots but for an entire film it becomes tedious, distracting, and boring. Repetition is a terrific concept to employ in narrative film making; for example, The Conversation (1974) and Taste of Cherry (1997) use it well. Side Effects fails to achieve anything interesting by repeatedly showing characters walk in and out of focus.
Recently, Soderbergh said that the studios wanted to downplay the “social” level of his film and cut domestic trailers that promoted the film as a thriller. Newsflash, you made a thriller. You didn’t make a film about addiction to anti-depression drugs. The studio was right in this case.
Side Effects is certainly not a bad a film but it is a cheap and empty thriller with a plot that approaches the ridiculous heights of Brian De Palma’s cinema but without the visual expertise to compensate.