Saturday, May 25, 2013
A Piece of Cake
Side Effects is a homage to a homage, a chic-sick little ditty about murder and pharmaceuticals and treachery and really beautifully lit Manhattan interiors. It has a lush feel that is almost so artificial it feels animatronic, a movie that moves without really moving, like one of those Disneyland funhouse dioramas that keep doing the same things over and over until it becomes sort of ghostly and unnerving. Steven Soderbergh directs, and Rooney Mara and Jude Law star, with help from Channing Tatum and the incredibly perfect Catherine Zeta Jones.
It's a set-up flick, meaning it's another yet another version of Vertigo, the penultimate setup flick Hitchcock made back in 1958, with Kim Novak as the vacuous victim/temptress, and Jimmy Stewart as the sadsack she both swindles and falls in love with and is ultimately victimized by. The dynamics of Vertigo are all over Side Effects, but Side Effects also is a homage to Brian DePalma's Verigo pastiche Body Double (in which Melanie Griffith steals the show), a flick so scrupulously, lavishly stupid it has the feel of a dream in some body's empty head, listless and eerie and funny in an unfunny yet completely hilarious way. DePalma's version of Vertigo takes place in a 1984 Hollywood underbelly of porn stars and out-of-work actors. The look is 1980s music-video/day-glo unreality. Vertigo itself takes place in a velvety San Francisco that is so Eisenhower-era elegant you want to crawl into its big strong arms. Side Effects' setting is the glossy/gritty cityscape out of Adrien Lyne's 1987 masterpiece Fatal Attraction, smoky and primal when it needs to be, shiny and perfect most other times. The lighting in Side Effects has the fragile mistiness of a romance-novel but also the muscular, graphic precision of noir, as well as the deft, foggy comfort of a depression medication commercial.
The pharmaceutical commercial aspect makes sense for sure: at times Side Effects feels like a parody of everything contemporary, from pharmacology overload to insider trading, not to mention lesbian chic and overworked professionals who can't turn off their smartphones. There's a psychiatrist afraid of losing his clients, as well as his striking blond wife kvetching because she didn't get the Citicorp job she wanted. At times it's all like a really grim episode of The Good Wife, and yet also a sort of kinky aftertaste fills every moment, thanks mainly to Mara's heady, delicious underacting that feels like overacting. She plays the femme-fatale in much the same way Novak and Griffith played them in Vertigo and Body Double: sort of hapless, a little stupid, but also so conniving they become innocents in a debauched little universe that only movies can make.
Hitchcock once said, "It's not a piece of life, it's a piece of cake," referring to how he sees making movies. All three of these films follow that dictum. They flaunt that feeling of hermetically-sealed "movieness" most movies can't capture because most movies seem to be made by committee. These three pictures are "director pictures." The visions of Hitchcock, DePalma and Soderbergh all coalesce around the experience of making whole worlds come to life without the necessity of realism, using technique and style to transcend what is normally necessary to fool us. These three movies don't fool us; they overwhelm us with artifice, a joyous lack of common sense. The texture and DNA of movies themselves gets somehow captured in all three, as well as a feeling of the complete abandonment of logic, as in "There is no way in hell that could happen." But it does anyway, thanks to an obsessive attention to set design, lighting, cinematography, and the actors acting like actors in a movie, not trying to reveal but to somehow symbolize and radiate. Really great movies like Side Effects and Body Double (and every movie Quentin Tarantino has ever made) that rip off other great movies like Vertigo are wonderful because they are coding and decoding the very pleasures they create, giving us a sense both of departure and of dejavu, gorgeous style without substance. What's better than that?