The trailers for Side Effects, director Steven Soderbergh’s new thriller, make it look like an indictment of all things pharmaceutical. It’s not that, though its view of the pharmaceutical industry is pretty grim. Rather, it’s a conventional thriller that has the smart pacing, loose-looking but tightly planned camerawork, and excellent performances we’ve come to expect from Soderbergh.
It’s a bummer, then, that he’s done making movies—for now. Who else can direct films as diverse as Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike and now, Side Effects, all within the span of two years? At least we HBO subscribers still have Behind the Candelabra, his movie about Liberace, to anticipate.
But back to Side Effects. It’s nifty, it’s nimble and it’s mildly mean-spirited, if you’re given to the bent that we’ve had enough movies about evil women. I’m not given to that bent. A thriller needs an evil character, and there’s a 50-percent chance that character could have ovaries.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, not entirely shaking the Lisbeth Salander mannerisms) is suffering from severe depression. Her husband, Martin (a little-seen Channing Tatum), has been in prison for four years after being convicted of insider trading. Now he’s out, and she’s a mess as they readjust.
After a botched suicide attempt, she’s prescribed antidepressants by Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) at the hospital where she’s treated. They don’t work. Banks puts her on different medications. She starts sleepwalking. Bad, bad things happen.
I usually don’t care about giving up spoilers, mostly because you can see them coming. But to reveal too much of Side Effects would be to truly give away too much, and there are many layers to this psychological thriller.
A few of those layers, especially as the movie moves toward its conclusion, are completely eye-roll-worthy. In fact, the movie’s big a-ha! moment—not the part about who’s grifting whom, but the way in which that person grifts the other—is so absurd, it actually produced a groan in the theater.
Here’s the thing about Soderbergh, though, and this is why he’s going to be missed (if he actually quits): The groan-worthiness of that moment—and it’s a doozy—is assuaged by his characteristic quick, but not choppy, editing; short scenes; and the excellent photography that goes along with it. How the actors get through this particular scene looking as committed as they do is a wonder, but they’re all pros; and besides, nothing is as embarrassing as Playing For Keeps must have been for Catherine Zeta-Jones (who appears here as a psychiatrist).
The best surprise about Side Effects is Law as Banks, showing the charisma, promise and likeability that some of his earlier performances hinted at, but that has been missing since, roughly, The Talented Mr. Ripley (which isn’t nearly as good as you remember, anyway). Here, he plays a genuinely caring, nice guy who happens to be a psychiatrist, and who gets in over his head because he gets too involved with his patients.
Don’t misunderstand; Banks is not a golden boy. Though there is something in Law’s performance that makes us want to give him the benefit of the doubt long after our goodwill for his character’s shortcomings should have evaporated.
The weak link is Mara, who’s saddled with playing a damsel in distress and a femme fatale at the same time. Damsel in distress she handles well enough. The toughness that she brought to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems to have faded, even as the plot machinations begin twisting in Side Effects’ final third and her character shifts into overdrive.
Still, Side Effects works, and has moments that are great. It’s worth seeing; and, for movie fans, it’s worth hoping that Soderbergh’s plan to paint full-time becomes part-time, and the other part-time job is making movies.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh / With Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones / Regal Santa Fe Stadium 14; Storyteller Dreamcatcher 10 / R / 106 min.