Steven Soderbergh Directs a Surprise Ending in the Revelatory Thriller 'Side Effects'

You might be forgiven if you didn’t want to sit through 106 minutes of sad, wan Manhattanite Emily (Rooney Mara) struggling with depression. Not that director Steven Soderbergh doesn’t make her story compelling, but his latest film, Side Effects (Open Road DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming), definitely settles in at a dramatic simmer, at least at first. Don’t stop reading, though, and don’t stop watching.

See, Emily’s stockbroker husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has finally returned home after a short prison stretch for insider trading, but her outlook isn’t improving. Posh psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) does his best to keep her on the rails—and off the subway tracks—even trying a new drug therapy. When Martin winds up with a knife in his back, and Emily’s fingerprints are found all over it, Side Effects glides toward an essay on the tragic displacements of modern pharmacological life, and of guilt and blame and fate. And then, almost before you realize it’s happening, you’re in the midst of an entirely different movie.

It wouldn’t do to reveal too much about where things head, much less where they end up. Suffice to say that, while it’s possible to actually miss the more meditative movie that Soderbergh discards, feeling the pulse here quicken and jump just when you expect it to ebb provides a rare and welcome frisson, even from a filmmaker who has spent so much of his career balancing art-house and multiplex appeal. (Side Effects’ adroitness on that score makes Soderbergh’s announced retirement from feature films feel even more like a keen loss.)

What one can say without qualms is that the cast is up to the challenge. Mara, nearly unrecognizable with her growing out dye-job and woebegone low energy, perfectly modulates Emily’s many moods and modes. Catherine Zeta-Jones, in a smaller role as a colleague of Jonathan’s, reasserts her considerable screen presence from behind a pair of professorial specs. Even the smaller performances here—from unknown character actors such as Michael Nathanson and Russell G. Jones—are dead on. But Law is the real revelation. His pretty-boy past on the far side of a moat of dispiriting lead roles, he culminates his character-actor phase by imbuing Jonathan with just enough smug ambition and entitlement to sell the film’s first half and then bringing out his more vulnerable yet less appeasing qualities on the other side of the turn. If you don’t notice the plot holes, it’s because Law papered himself over them. Welcome back.

When it comes to clever bait-and-switches in recent cinema, there’s an argument to be made that 2010 Korean film The Housemaid beats them all. If you judged it by the looks of its trailer, you’d mistake Im Sang-soo’s film for a high-end Skinemax-style melodrama. But Im smuggled acrid class commentary in with the luxe appointments and choreographed coitus; the finale puts a flaming exclamation point on Occupy-era divisions and discontents.

The Housemaid worked so well that Im went right back to the same well for follow-up The Taste of Money (IFC DVD and streaming). There’s another ungodly-rich family, and another lowly employee drawn into their depraved shenanigans. This time it’s a young man named Young-kak (Kim Kang-woo) rather than a young woman, and he’s more an executive assistant than a servant, but he is nonetheless so in thrall to the powerful Yoon family that he’s trusted to come along as patriarch Chairman Yoon (Baek Yoon-sik) pays the authorities literal trunks full of money to get his son (On Joo-wan) out of big trouble. And Young-kak is also handy when the aging family matriarch (The Housemaid’s Yoon Yeo-jong, on the other side of the class line this time) wants to take out her frustrations over the Chairman’s affair with a Filipina maid (Maui Taylor) by boinking her retainer. Complications ensue.

But again, Young-kak isn’t a lowly, working-class housemaid. He works for the Yoons as a career move, and it’s kind of working, thus the inequities and vulnerabilities that fueled the drama in The Housemaid are pretty much moot here. Indeed, the fact that all the other characters ever really talk about is money, power, sex, and revenge renders them fatally two-dimensional. And while there’s a good bit of mordant humor to The Taste of Money—it contains one of the finest open-casket jokes in all of cinema—it isn’t winking enough to qualify as camp. Throw in surely the worst English-speaking actor in Asia, Darcy Paquet, as an American businessman named Robert Altman and a “surprise” ending that hedges itself so thoroughly that you don’t care what it really means, and you’ve got the mediocre straight-to-video would-be thriller that The Housemaid belied.

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