Film Review – Side Effects
If Side Effects truly does end up being Steven Soderbergh’s final theatrical release (as he claims to have retired), no one can blame him for swinging for the fences. The director has worn many different hats in his twenty-plus years in the business, releasing films at a breakneck speed and moving seamlessly from genre to genre. Side Effects, then, makes for a suitable career capper, as its mood and intentions change drastically from one reveal to the next. Not in the mood for diatribes on the dangers of big-time pharmaceutical companies? Wait twenty minutes and hold on tight.
Rooney Mara (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) stars as Emily Taylor, a former socialite forced to enter the real world after her husband (Soderbergh mainstay Channing Tatum) is sent to prison for insider trading. The film picks up just days before his release, as Emily prepares to re-adjust to married life after four years alone. The severity of her depression becomes quickly evident with the palpable anxiety brought on at a party and her vacant-eyed unresponsiveness to sex. After a particularly harrowing suicide attempt, Emily is referred to Banks (Jude Law), a respected psychiatrist who takes fast interest in her recovery.
Based on a recommendation from Emily’s former shrink (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Banks is enlisted to study the effects of a new antidepressant called Ablixa during its licensing stage, and prescribes it to Emily. Having had poor reactions to more reputable drugs of its kind, Emily is overcome with relief when Ablixa seemingly becomes the miracle cure she’s been looking for. Not only does she seem happier, but energetic and brimming with new-found optimism. To paraphrase Tatum’s character Martin after a particularly rollicking roll in the hay, “Whoever makes this drug is going to be rich.”
Because that in itself would make for a pretty uneventful story arc, signs of danger are presented, as one of Ablixa’s side effects leads to Emily sleepwalking. She appears to be awake and in fact engages in household chores, but it’s more than enough to scare Martin. He fights for a new prescription, but Emily insists it remain unchanged. Banks reluctantly keeps the supply coming. Before long, tragedy strikes, and we’re left to weigh the consequences of a certain, irredeemable act. Or so Soderbergh would have you believe…
Side Effects is one of the trickier movies I’ve been assigned to review. To spell out its many twists and turns would take away from the fun of experiencing it firsthand. Hell, even revealing that there ARE such twists and turns in store makes me hesitant. Those who have seen the purposely vague trailers might (reasonably) expect a sobering drama in the vein of Soderbergh’s own Contagion..which I can now only suspect was his intention.
As the true motivations of characters and actions begin to unfold and reveal themselves—in some cases only to cancel out your foolproof assumptions of what’s to follow—it becomes clear that we as an audience are Soderbergh’s plaything. His joyous abandonment of traditional structure in favor of cheap thrills works well enough in that the actors involved are committed and clearly having a blast. Trashier elements are unveiled with glee, and you’re left with two choices: embrace it or throw your hands up in the air in astonished exasperation. After much thought, I’ve chosen to embrace it with open, exasperated arms.
I saw this film two weeks ago now and have yet to stop thinking about it. It’s by no means perfect. There are about three plot twists too many and one in particular is so poorly executed I’m still unsure of its relevance. Despite its inherent silliness, though, the acting is top-notch throughout. I’ve had my eye on Mara since her small but mesmerizing performance in The Social Network and consider this to be her best work to date. Collaborating with Soderbergh always seems to bring the best out of Tatum and Law, and this proves to be no exception.
So again, if you must leave us, Steven, thanks for the ride. It won’t be forgotten.
Final Grade: B