Side Effects ***1/2 (out of five)
If he’s telling the truth – or, more likely and hopefully, until he changes his mind – Side Effects is going to be Steven Soderberg’s final theatrically released feature film (he still has a feature-length film for cable television that’s yet to screen). For me and I know for many, this is a very, very sad thing. Not only do many of us look forward – some of us, greatly – to the next Soderberg film, we’ve always been lucky enough never to have to wait too long; of the Major Directors, Soderberg is easily the most prolific (with the possible exception of Woody Allen, whose work, let’s face it, could do with a longer gestation period).
Contagion was my favorite film of 2011; at first glance (poster, trailer, and especially title) Side Effects is in a very similar vein: as Contagion was about a virus, Side Effects seems to be about the evils of Big Pharma (like The Constant Gardner). But Soderberg isn’t really in the business of repeating himself, and the two films are actually very different. Side Effects is really a much more intimate thriller, about the deep mystery of one woman’s depression, and her response to a new anti-depressant under the guidance of her psychiatrist; Rooney Mara and Jude Law are excellent in these roles. Rather than exploding outwards, as Contagion does, this film circles inwards, and instead of the obvious expectation – Big Pharma is screwing with us all! – there are a lot more twists and turns on a personal level. Contagion was massively ambitious; this one is quiet, insidious and creepy.
Soderberg shoots a rainy, overcast New York gorgeously, in stately zooms, swoops, moves and pans; he’s gone for a formal, measured, high-gloss approach (none of his hand-held shots here) and, basically, it’s his Hitchcock film, not only in style but in substance; once it’s all over, the Hitchcockian archetypes will be plain to see.
It’s far from his best film but any Soderberg film is usually fascinating and this one is no exception; at its best, it’s chilling, creepy, strange and intriguing; at its worst, it’s gorgeous to look at.
If Soderberg’s really giving up the Big Screen, Contagion would have been the ultimate swan song, but Side Effects is at least a little better, and a little more weighty, than Magic Mike. Ultimately, no film is going to feel like the “right” one to be his last, because he’s one of the best directors in the world, and it’s the void to come that’s going to hurt.
The Paperboy *** (out of five)
Lee Daniels made quite a splash with Precious a few years back, and that word well describes his follow-up, which luxuriates in style at the expense of story. Set in the late sixties in Florida, the film – and everyone in it – shimmers with sweat; it’s shot in some sort of eternal heat haze, which gets across the intention that its really really hot very strongly, if not much more; period design detail is well represented as well.
His cast is strong. Matthew McConaughey plays a Pultizer Prize winning reporter returning to his hometown with his writing partner to pursue a story of miscarried justice; the constantly improving Zach Effron plays his listless younger brother, and Nicole Kidman plays one step less than totally bonkers as a youthful forty something who is in a demented pen-pal relationship with John Cusack, the object of McConaughey’s story, who may be innocent of the crime of which he’s accused, but is decidedly not an innocent. It’s fun to see Cusack play a redneck freak; it’s more fun to see Kidman play “white trash”. For a girl from Sydney she’s very good at it.
It’s sixties southern noir, and it pushes many of that genres’ buttons well, except it’s slow, and that’s its crime. It lazes about in the humidity, as though that were an excuse for its lack of major dramatic action. There is certainly a middle, a beginning and an end, but between them is a whole lot of meandering, time-filling non-action. An edit would do it a lot of good.