Steven Soderbergh, the eclectic filmmaker who helped launch the great independent film movement of the 1990s, announced last year that he would be hanging up his viewfinder to pursue other interests. With his final picture, the HBO-released Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra, tallying Golden Globe wins for Best Mini-Series or Movie Made for Television and Best Actor in a Mini-Series or Movie Made for Television (Michael Douglas), it looks like Soderbergh will retire on a high note. It’s not a great film, but it reaches a standard higher than any other of his final handful of films, which may indicate why he is retiring now, at the relatively young age of 51. After a career of original, personal films, Soderbergh’s final five movies seem like the work of a bored director.
In the beginning of his career, Soderbergh made ardently independent features, with as mixed results as one director could have. When his first feature, sex, lies, and videotape, screened at the then-potent Sundance Film Festival in 1989, he became an overnight sensation. Major awards soon followed, including the Palme d’Or at Cannes (which famously prompted a scorned Spike Lee to threaten jury president Wim Wenders’ life for keeping the prize from Do the Right Thing). On the wings of his newfound clout, though, Soderbergh made a string of lofty, artistic films that had great difficulty in connecting an audience. Kafka (1991), King of the Hill (1993), The Underneath (1995), and Schizopolis (1996) vary widely in quality, but were all duds at the box office.
After four undisputed flops, resurrection came with his Elmore Leonard adaptation, Out of Sight (1998), a stylish, well-made comedy/action picture with huge star power (George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez). With its release, Soderbergh not only created a decent box office hit, he also discovered a model of filmmaking that he would employ thereafter: one for them, one for me. For the next fifteen years, Soderbergh would be known as a filmmaker who was as comfortable directing hundred-million dollar star vehicles like the Ocean’s Trilogy (2001, 2004, 2007) as he was making low-budget, anti-genre films like The Girlfriend Experience (2009).
For a filmmaker who vacillated between the major studio and independent film worlds with such ease, Soderbergh held onto one particular consistency throughout his career: he was equally capable at any time of making a wonderful or dreadful movie. The size of his budget has had no bearing whatsoever on the quality of his product. Out of Sight and Ocean’s Eleven are fun, engaging heist movies that are better than they have any right to be, while Traffic is bloated and Ocean’s Thirteen is unbearable. On the other hand, the relatively low-budget Full Frontal was more fun to make than to watch, while the equally low-budget Bubble is an ambitious, engrossing drama.
Soderbergh’s last really good film is The Informant!, which falls closer to an independent than a major release, despite Matt Damon’s name above the title. Full of energy, style, and originality, it seemed like Soderbergh had found his stride again, but it was not to last. He directed five more major releases after The Informant!, none of which would match its quality or vitality. They would be the work of an uninspired director.
In his previous films, whatever their quality, Soderbergh gave the impression that he was at least invested in them. He seemed to take pleasure from pushing ideas or style, and experimenting with narrative. His final five films mark a drastic shift in his work. Rather than experimenting with narrative, Soderbergh took on projects with shockingly bland, formulaic scripts. Maybe he made these films as a challenge to himself, or out of curiosity, or because the structure of these films was so ready-made that they were relatively easy movies to conceive.
Whatever the reasons, the results are disappointing – with the minor exception of Behind the Candelabra. All five of his final films are pat genre pictures: a virus outbreak thriller (Contagion), a straightforward action movie (Haywire), a “Hitchcockian” mystery/suspense yarn (Side Effects), and two showbiz biopics (Magic Mike and Behind the Candelabra).
Contagion (2011) is a mid-budget disaster movie that eschews character development in favor of star power. It would have been a much better film if it featured only one above-the-title star, instead of seven. Diluted among its actors, the emotional power of the movie simplifies into clichéd manipulations. Like most other disaster movies, it adheres to an expository approach – consequently, a film about millions of people dying around the world somehow manages to have nothing to say.
Haywire (2011) is a Steven Seagal-style showpiece for superstar kickboxer-turned-actress Gina Carano. There are lots of fistfights to show off Carano’s martial arts abilities, some standard intrigue and bureaucratic corruption, and a couple of twists at the end that are not all that surprising. Ultimately, it has the cardboard feel of a straight-to-DVD release.
Side Effects (2013), his final theatrical release, is especially disappointing because it begins so strongly. The first twenty minutes set up a surprising first-act twist, but then it degrades into a tired retread of the innocent man caught in a web of deceit. Soderbergh said in interviews that he was inspired by the work of Adrian Lyne of all people, specifically Fatal Attraction. Side Effects actually seems more like Paul Verhoven without the satire: the paranoid threat to masculinity, the impotence of the justice system, the highly unethical but ultimately justifiable behavior of the main character, and even a generous helping of lesbian villainy. It is another in his line of prefab genre pictures, unchallenged and unchallenging.
If any of his final five films tries to take a discursive approach to its genre, it’s Magic Mike (2012), the tale of a seasoned male stripper (Channing Tatum, on whose story the film was “inspired”) searching for love and a respectable future. Flipping the genre around to concentrate on a group of objectified men could have been interesting, but Soderbergh ignores the questions his film raises about gender, sex and objectification in our culture.
Meanwhile, the narrative resolves to simple genre staples: the hot ingénue who succumbs to drug addiction (complete with the scene where someone persuades him to try them for the first time), the father figure who turns out to be not so fatherly, and a ridiculous boy-meets/loses/wins-girl plotline, chock-full of nauseating cat-and-mouse flirtations. The film is most interesting in its relentless, self-aware exploitation of Matthew McConaughey and his body, but even that is just the narrative set-up for this movie’s version of The Big Game: a single night of dancing that will for some arbitrary reason determine the fates of every character in the film. Given a warm and fuzzy ending, the movie is ultimately more conservative than ambitious.
As Magic Mike rests on the laurels of a simple twist to an old formula, so too does Soderbergh’s final film, Behind the Candelabra (2013), the biopic of Scott Thorson (Matt Damon) and his tempestuous six-year relationship with Liberace (Michael Douglas). Again, we have a typical showbiz biopic: young, naïve rube comes to the big city (in this case, Las Vegas), finds instant fortune, succumbs to a lavish lifestyle, becomes addicted to drugs, and then the whole thing falls apart.
Ostensibly, Behind the Candelabra subverts genre conventions by depicting a gay male couple and showing not-quite graphic sex scenes. At its core, though, it just switches out one woman for one man. You could say that by incorporating all the conventions one would expect from a genre that typically features a heterosexual couple, Soderbergh is trying in some way to normalize gay relationships as represented in film. Even if that were true, though, it’s still a mediocre script – it just happens to be a mediocre script about gay people.
Behind the Candelabra does manage to climb above mediocrity, but it has nothing to do with the narrative or the style of the film. Matt Damon and Michael Douglas are extraordinary as the two lovers, and they bring the passion to the film. Douglas, having just beaten cancer, gives his best performance in at least a decade, perhaps two, as the filthy rich, self-obsessed, sexually insatiable musician. He hits perfect notes of egotism, sensitivity, and immaturity.
As good as Douglas is, Damon gives an even better performance as the small-town boy who trades his body (and his face) for the extravagant lifestyle Liberace affords him. Damon is so good in the first half of the movie, balancing the complexity of his motives, that it’s a shame when the narrative turns him into a rather flat drug addict (just like in Magic Mike, we get to see this film’s ingénue persuaded into drug use, too). Damon still turns in a terrific performance, but with no help from the script. He and Douglas raise Behind the Candelabra to a much higher level than it probably deserved.
If Soderbergh’s final five films are all uncharacteristically uninspired, they are at least consistent with his career-long inclination to avoid predictability. He is an independent filmmaker in the most personal sense, choosing the projects he wants to make for the reasons he wants to make them. Over the years, he has developed enough clout – and, just as importantly, has friends with enough clout – to make a wide array of films. This doesn’t even take into account the amount of films he produced through his and George Clooney’s production company, Section Eight, which include such idiosyncratic films as Far From Heaven (2002), Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), Keane (2004), Syriana (2005), and A Scanner Darkly (2006).
While Soderbergh might seem like an aging athlete who stayed too many years past his prime, it is worth pointing out that retirement itself is rare in Hollywood. So many other filmmakers would have treaded water for a couple more decades or so, making a few million dollars every five years by putting out studio drivel.
Even if Soderbergh’s name occasionally pops up in credits outside the movie theater (he is listed as producer and director on the upcoming Cinemax mini-series, The Knick), we can at least be thankful that, for the time being, we won’t see his name on at the bottom of any Spiderman posters. For a director who made so many personal films, both good and bad, that would have been the ultimate disappointment.