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Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects is a quiet bummer — but that's nothing compared to the problems with Identity Thief's Melissa McCarthy

Rooney Mara might be too inscrutable to be a star. Her face masks everything — intent, affection, human warmth, respiration. But she’s not a zombie, either. She’s inscrutable for the camera. To watch her in David Fincher’s version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo or Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects, which opens tomorrow, is to be psychologically seduced. It’s not that you wonder what’s going on with her. It’s that you wonder what else is going on. She’s a director’s actor that way, a performer a filmmaker can trust to do fascinating things — not simply to hold a close-up but to complicate it.

Mara and Fincher kept The Dragon Tattoo from sliding further into kabuki garbage. She found a hundred ways to play about two facial expressions. Side Effects gives her more to do with a similarly mentally shaky woman and less physical space in which to do it. Mara is often enclosed here — in small rooms and offices in New York City. Even in a capacious banquet space, Soderbergh finds framing that makes her seem trapped. She plays a suicidal graphic designer named Emily. Emily’s husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), has just been released from prison for insider trading. All the trappings of their nouveau affluence are gone, and even as he vows to climb back into the investment world, she’s in such a stupor that you can’t imagine that she was ever more than a Stepford wife. Emily drives her car into a wall of a parking garage. She appears to contemplate walking off a Harlem subway platform. When Martin climbs on top of her and pumpdesigners away, she rocks back and forth beneath him, awake yet asleep. After the car crash, an eager, ethically lax psychiatrist named Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) begins treating Emily, putting her on a new drug, and the results are mixed. Her libido returns, but her timing’s off. Breakfast, for instance, becomes a meal served in the evening.

For a good stretch the movie is a quiet, unobtrusive satire of the pharmaceutical world. Emily’s boss (Polly Draper) catches her ill in the bathroom at work, sees her bottle of pills, and says, “These made me sick, too. I had better luck with Celexa.” Soderbergh and his writer, Scott Z. Burns, find disturbing comedy in a world in which everyone is on something — the famous stuff (Wellbutrin, Effexor, and Zoloft) and its amusingly named fictitious counterparts, like Ablixa. Dr. Banks even gives his statuesque wife (Vinessa Shaw) his newest stuff. He takes money from a drug company to test out an antidepressant called Deletrex. But the dour social drama — about a couple trying to rebuild a life together when one of them is seemingly too sad to move — turns out to be a front for an altogether different enterprise, the sort of thriller whose plot doesn’t twist so much as round corners until a circle has been made.

Soderbergh has been telling the press that he can’t talk about Side Effects because to do so would be to ruin its surprises. And the film noir the movie becomes is a surprise. There’s a kind of fun in trying to assemble what’s going on here. Could it be true, what one character suspects another has done? And how will the character under suspicion keep trying to derail her accuser? There’s a Hitchcockiness about the movie, and Law’s doctor becomes the quintessential Hitchcock male, a guy sinking in narrative quicksand.

But even as you enjoy seeing where Soderbergh and Burns are trying to take these people — including the insinuating psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta- Jones) Emily had before Martin was locked up — it’s difficult to escape the impression that the movie is impressed only with its cleverness. It’s only clever the way a crossword puzzle’s clever — proud of the way it managed to pull off a bait-and-switch, not once but, genre-wise, three times. There’s an incarceration movie, a sex thriller, and a potboiler in here.

The movie has a cold, foreboding air not unlike the one Philip Kaufman supplied for his 1978 version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Formally, Soderbergh does Kaufman one better, shooting digitally, which enhances the impression that in every scene someone’s left open the freezer door. Despite its attempts to warm its hands by the fires of luridness, the film itself feels medicated against the blues. It doesn’t have the pop ingenuity of movies like Out of Sight, his Ocean’s capers, Contagion, The Informant!, or Magic Mike. It’s him in the jazzier, muffled, experimental mode of Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience and Haywire. Side Effects is pop-ish, eventually strapping the actors (nearly all of whom are excellent, though Tatum has almost nothing to do) in for the roller-coaster plot. But it’s a ride that feels like it’s moving in slow motion.

This is alleged to be Soderbergh’s second-to-last film before he takes a voluntary leave from moviemaking. He told the Boston Globe that he needs time to “reassess.” If he can’t come back as someone completely new, he won’t come back at all. It’s a shame for him to pack it in (he’s only 50), especially given that he might have found his ideal on-screen woman in Mara. She can toy with expectations and ambivalence, and she can certainly play Soderbergh’s wily head games.

At the time of Contagion, it seemed ludicrous for Soderbergh to quit and take up painting or philanthropy or whatever else he might plan to do. He was still one of the best directors in and around Hollywood. But he’s always seemed torn about the director he wanted to — or was supposed to? — be. How much art to create? How much artiness? How seriously to take it? How seriously should he pursue an audience? As a moviegoer, it could be exciting watching a major director struggle with his sense of independence, working far outside the studio system one minute and thriving within it the next. Is the hours-long, vividly discursive, ideologically thin revolution epic Che who he is? Or is he the guy so skilled at ensemble heist comedies that now anytime you see a group of people robbing anything you think fondly of him?

The movie that’s always seemed to embody Soderbergh’s ambivalence was Full Frontal, his gag from 2002 on the absurdities of the film industry. He wanted to bite the hand of a business that he seemed to like. The movie was loaded with movie stars and wanted to skewer his impression of Hollywood’s shallowness and pampering, but Soderbergh wasn’t, say, Robert Altman. He was doing his stabbing with a spork. Side Effects might actually be a clearer window into his foggy state of mind. It doesn’t know what it is.

“Depression,” Dr. Banks says, “is the inability to construct a future.” This retirement of Soderbergh’s might be an attempt to assess his ontology, to construct a future. The final shot is of someone looking out a window, trapped. Soderbergh makes you feel the dreadful claustrophobia of that moment. It’s as if he thinks the walls are closing in on him, too.

Identify Thief

Ultimately, what Side Effects turns into, on Jude Law’s end, is the sort of movie Michael Douglas typified in his prime: white guys under siege. Douglas could be just as famous making the same post–Wall Street movies: Fatal Attraction, The War of the Roses, Basic Instinct, Falling Down, Disclosure, The Game, A Perfect Murder, Traffic. But the reception would be different. The reason Django Unchained and Lincoln are such big hits is that they reconfigure the cultural terrain. Douglas was usually affronted. Women and brown people were tearing either at his life or at the fabric of this great nation. Now he wouldn’t be allowed to be so outsize a figure of put-upon-ness. He’d either have to help free the slaves or have the slaves beat him. But I’ve come to miss Douglas’s entitled chutzpah, his ability to avenge most of the wrongs he perceives have been done to him. He was the kind of star you’d want to see stand up to Django.

Identity Thief is a loud, dreary example of how far the movies have drifted from his mix of righteousness, paranoia, and remorseless self-belief. Jason Bateman plays a nobody internal accounts manager at a Denver financial firm who discovers that a woman (Melissa McCarthy) in Florida has stolen his Social Security number. She’s going on spending sprees with his androgynous name (Sandy Patterson) and excellent credit. As with Douglas, the system is suddenly broken for him, and he has to take matters into his own hands.

Bateman typifies spineless sarcasm that’s best when it’s spread throughout a comedy with a large cast. But the movies seem to have settled on him for a leading man because this is how the men writing and directing our movies see themselves — handsome smart-ass family men who can’t get a break. Bateman isn’t a star, but he’s become one in a vacuum of masculinity, affronted and otherwise. Even as one of the movie’s producers, there’s no way he can’t be blamed for the wretchedness of this movie, which has been pumped full of road-trip clichés by Craig Mazin, directed by Seth Gordon, and dropped into megaplexes with no idea of what kind of comedy it is (so it is no kind).

The police threaten to arrest Sandy at his brand-new job because the woman who’s stolen his identity also appears to be mixed up in some kind of guns-and-drugs ring. For reasons that make almost no sense (especially if they’re actually legal), the Denver detectives can’t coordinate their investigation with anyone in Florida, so Sandy proposes leaving his two daughters and pregnant wife (Amanda Peet), going south, and dragging his imposter back west for arrest.

Obviously, she’s reluctant to go, violently so. Obviously, she comes around. Obviously, there’s some reason they can’t fly. Obviously, they have to share a series of doomed cars, including one that resembles what the Beltway snipers drove. And, of course, they’re chased by two thugs (T.I. and Genesis Rodriguez) and a bounty hunter (Robert Patrick). There’s a raunchy night in a motel room, mayhem on the interstate, and lines like, “I got no time. I got no money. I got no chance.” Of course, Sandy experiences a change of heart about the crook who’s ruined his life. But the movie goes even beyond that, daring to give her a Pretty Woman makeover, a Dickensian backstory, and an ending you could try to roast marshmallows by. (After a minute with these two in a car, you long for the movie that must have partially inspired this one — Midnight Run, the very good 1988 comedy with Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin.)

That ending in Identity Thief comes after we’ve seen Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family‘s Cam) vigorously bed McCarthy, after a speeding car sends her flying 20 feet in the air, after which she bounces right up and Bateman asks, “Are you even human?” It’s a fair question. The answer in movies is no. McCarthy’s fatness is the joke. The history of the movies doubles as a loose figurative history of clowns and clowning: Chaplin, Sennett, Keaton, Tati, Lewis, Murray, Carrey. Identity Thief puts lots of McCarthy in lots of bright, nonsense outfits. It puffs out her red hair — the preferred color of funny women (Ball, Midler, Roberts, Messing, Stone) — gives her a ludicrous makeup job, and dresses her in bright, bozo prints. McCarthy is literally a clown. Those costumes, her size, and the athleticism that belies it permit an audience to roar when McCarthy’s character jumps drunk from a bar and crashes to the floor, when Bateman chucks a George Foreman grill at her or whacks her with a guitar as if he were Prince Fielder. This isn’t comedy. It’s the finale of Misery.

Goldie Hawn played this sort of sociopath with Steve Martin in HouseSitter, a so-so farce from 1992. The surprise was in Hawn’s bringing a clinical craziness to her ditz persona. With Identity Thief, McCarthy’s being a clown is supposed to keep us from caring that she makes no psychological sense. We’re not supposed to notice that she’s either an alcoholic or schizophrenic or 4 years old. McCarthy lets the movies see her as a buffoon, although I’m guessing she pushed to give the character some last-minute humanity — because she’s not a clown, she’s a comedic actress. You can see that on Mike & Molly. It’s a terrible sitcom, but the parameters of the format give her approach to comedy some normalcy both to push against and maintain. She’s very good there, and no one’s asking her to eat a rack of ribs or lean in Robert Patrick’s face and say, “Oh, God. Your beard smells like sandwiches.”

This is a woman who could probably do anything as a movie comedian. She needs decently outlined characters that let her create a persona, not do more of this ADD wilding out. You wonder what she could have done with Rooney Mara’s part in Soderbergh’s movie.

Gordon appears to be specializing in regressive comedies. Four Christmases and Horrible Bosses are also his. The laughs don’t stem from wit or setups but from phony rage and cheap slapstick. His best movie remains his first feature, a documentary about two rival Donkey Kong champions called The King of Kong. Hollywood appears to have discouraged him from exploring the easy human comedy of that movie and pushed him into live-action cartoons. It’d be nice to see him earn warmth rather than use it to insult us. At some point, the soundtrack coughs up James Brown’s “The Payback,” and it’s a delusional song choice. You don’t care enough about these people to want to see them come out on top.

Welsey!

Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris

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