Steven Soderbergh has money issues. From the bank robbers of Out of Sight to the drug dealers of Traffic to the sex workers of The Girlfriend Experience and Magic Mike, the costs vs. benefits of American success has always been at the core of the 50-year-old director’s work. He scored his two biggest hits, in 2000 and 2001, by reinvigorating classic Hollywood tropes about money: Erin Brockovich, in the strident anticorporate vein of Silkwood, starred Julia Roberts as an environmental crusader in a push-up bra and netted $250 million. Ocean’s Eleven did even better, launching a $1.1 billion trilogy. The candy-colored remake of a 1960 Sinatra film rediscovered a lost formula: the heist flick with a cavalcade of stars. There hasn’t been a film as successful in either genre since.
Soderbergh’s newest, Side Effects, opening on Feb. 7, stars Channing Tatum as Martin, a hotshot Wall Street trader who’s just done time for insider trading. Rooney Mara plays his wife, Emily, a depressive whose condition escalates after his return. As Martin scrambles to launch a scheme with a financial whiz he met in prison, Emily is prescribed a mood-inhibiting antidepressant that seems to produce terrible Side Effects—crying jags, sleepwalking, suicidal thoughts, and worse. Without spoiling the plot, what initially appears to be a simple anticorporate film about the victims of profit-driven Big Pharma quickly evolves into a murder-mystery thriller set in the world of white-collar crime.
One of Soderbergh’s tightest films, it dives deep into the director’s favorite territory: cold hard cash, the paranoia about the role of corporations in our lives, the fear of losing it all. In a way, it’s a companion piece to his 2009 film The Informant!, which like Side Effects was scripted by Scott Burns. That movie seems to be a straightforward underdog tale about a real-life whistle-blower, played by Matt Damon, who exposes his corporation’s price-fixing; later it’s revealed that he himself has been embezzling millions from the company. (In December’s fracking drama Promised Land—spoiler alert—Gus Van Sant pulls a similar trick, revealing John Krasinski’s environmental activist to be a secret corporate plant.)
Soderbergh’s love-hate relationship with lucre is mirrored in his tendency to jump between big-budget and experimental films. His debut, Sex, Lies, and Videotape, sparked an era of low-budget independent film financing in 1989; since then he’s worked in HD video and used amateur casts to get his smaller films made. One year he might revel in the system and release a studio tentpole; the next, he might film a four-hour anticapitalist epic about Che Guevara. He’s always uncomfortably aware that studios only value him as highly as his last film. Even after creating the profitable Ocean’s franchise for Warner Bros. (TWX), he was kicked off Sony’s (SNE) Brad Pitt sabermetrics project Moneyball in 2009 when he delivered a script the studio felt was just too weird.
Soderbergh’s been burned so many times by Hollywood economics, it’s no wonder his films have grown more obsessed with the ways money corrupts. The sunny whistle-blower in The Informant! is a secret thief; the self-starting stripper in Magic Mike gets caught up in the underworld. As for Soderbergh himself, it’s notable that his worst film, the bloated, smug Ocean’s Thirteen, was also his most expensive. In Side Effects, he finally seems to have picked a side: Mara at first appears to be another innocent victim of Big Business, yet her more insidious sickness isn’t triggered by the medication but by her exposure to her Wall Street husband’s financial schemes.