Steven Soderbergh’s Last Weekend at the Movies

02/08/2013 11:22 AM |

Side Effects by Steven Soderbergh

Side Effects: Farewell, sweet Soderbergh. For some time, it seemed like Steven Soderbergh’s supposed retirement from filmmaking belonged somewhere between rap retirement and classic-rock retirement on the truthiness spectrum, but that recent lengthy interview with New York suggests serious intent. If it feels prolonged already, that’s just because Soderbergh works fast: he mentioned bowing out about a year ago, with one movie just out, another just months away, and two more, Side Effects and Behind the Candelabra, about to shoot. Candelabra will bypass theaters entirely, which leaves the thriller Side Effects as his final theatrical release, at least for now. He has no features in production.

I’m sure his retirement, whether permanent or simply extended, will lend credence to dismissals of Soderbergh as a brainy, detached dabbler who hits lots of experimental doubles rather than establishing him as a passionate, first-tier, home-run-knocking auteur. But as disappointed as I am that Soderbergh will, at minimum, fail to maintain the dizzying pace of the past 15 years, which has yielded 18 narrative features and the revitalized careers of any number of actors, I’ve never bought his rep as (to mix my metaphors) a pointy-headed cold fish. Haywire deconstructs action movies a little, but not by denying the audience the pleasure of Gina Carano-issued beatings, and Magic Mike has plenty of musical/romantic comedy-drama enjoyment alongside its treatment of male stripping as the other side of the coin as The Girlfriend Experience‘s high-class hooking. Soderbergh may have felt disillusioned after the grueling experience of making and barely releasing his two-part Che epic, but since then his movies have grown more playful with their thesis statements. The Informant! riffs on corporate espionage through one of Matt Damon’s funniest and most weirdly touching performances, while Contagion offers a Soderberghian take on the ensemble disaster movie, and he’s said that the psychological thrillers studios made in the 80s were an influence on Side Effects.

To some, this probably makes Soderbergh something of an egghead version of Tarantino: a guy who can’t just put his genre exercises away and make a movie-free movie. But just as Tarantino spins his movies’ movieness into something wild, original, and deeply passionate, Soderbergh’s toying with cinematic convention is so pleasurable that it overrides the cinema-studies overtones. Of course, he’s also a lot speedier than Tarantino; there’s something reaffirming about the lack of fussiness, the building of a filmography less obsessed with perfection than breadth and variety. If he never again made a movie as near-perfect as Out of Sight, well, most directors don’t, ever. I haven’t yet seen Side Effects, but its apparent lack of career-capping epic statements feels right for a director who would rather explore and move on than tinker laboriously. I guess this means I have to respect his decision to explore and move on from film—even if it makes my movie years less interesting in the meantime.