Steven Soderbergh remains one of the great cinematic chameleons behind the camera, able to craft a convincing heist thriller with as much apparent ease as an introspective story of male strippers or a multi-tiered drug drama. And while you might think you know what Side Effects is about, Soderbergh expertly guides us through the twisty plot and uses some clever surprises to keep us guessing, making this a much more enjoyable experience than the uninspired trailers make it out to be.
It’s a shame that this is Soderbergh’s last theatrical release before his retirement (although for HBO subscribers, he does have the Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra hitting the small screen this year). The director seems to have found a very interesting second wind in the past couple of years with movies like Contagion, Haywire, and Magic Mike, and while there isn’t much that thematically ties those projects together, they’re all unmistakably Soderbergh films. He reteams with Contagion writer Scott Z. Burns here, and while Side Effects appears on the surface to be a similarly cold exploration of pharmaceutical drugs and their effects on humanity, the film is surprisingly much more of a mystery noir that just happens to use medicine as a backdrop.
The story follows a young woman (Rooney Mara) who suffers from depression after her husband (Channing Tatum) gets out of prison in the wake of a four year stint for insider trading. She visits a therapist (Jude Law), who meets with her previous doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and he prescribes her some medication, which has some devastating effects on her marriage. The therapist gets caught in the aftermath, and as his life falls apart around him, he has to figure out what went wrong before he loses everything and everyone that’s important to him. I realize that summary sounds very vague and potentially boring, but I’m omitting large parts of the story in order to preserve the viewing experience for you; when a movie’s marketing doesn’t automatically give everything away, I figure I don’t have the right to do so in my review in case you haven’t seen the movie yet.
The film broaches some interesting and topical material concerning the responsibility doctors have for their patients’ behavior, the moral grey zone of participating in pharmaceutical testing, the difference between being guilty and committing a crime, and much more. I was all ready for another Contagion, but halfway through the film, this shifts to something totally different. While Contagion followed multiple characters and kept them all at a distance in favor of making a larger statement about the way the world would react to a global outbreak, Soderbergh and Burns give us a much more personal story here, manipulating our emotions by slowly leaking bits of information as the film churns forward. We’re very much meant to feel certain things at certain times, and while being manipulated like that can often feel insincere, this felt very much like a classic thriller with Jude Law as a modern day Bogart tasked with solving a larger mystery before it’s too late. Because of that shift, a lot of those compelling topics are brushed aside in favor of the narrative. (It’s a good story, so I didn’t mind too much, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there’s another movie buried in here in which Soderbergh could really explore these issues without being sidelined.)
Mara plays the fractured, depressed lead role very well, and the actress has one of the best blank expressions in the industry. That doesn’t sound complimentary – and isn’t, really – but it actually works in her favor in this film. Soderbergh seems to bring out the best in Channing Tatum (who has been something of a muse as of late) and Catherine Zeta-Jones (who hasn’t made a good movie in years), and he also secures another wonderful performance from Law as the conflicted therapist. It’s a pretty tight story, and there isn’t a lot of room for supporting performances outside of the main four, and in because of that it almost feels like it could have been a stage play almost as easily as a film. The camerawork is fine (and the alternating warm and cold lighting helps to identify Soderbergh’s distinct aesthetic), but there’s nothing about this movie that screams, “see this in a theater.”
Side Effects is an intelligent, adult mystery that succeeds largely due to stylish direction, a good script, and solid acting, despite occasionally treading in conventional waters. This feels like the sort of mid-budget movie for adults that studios don’t really make anymore. Open Road Films, who has a questionable track record since forming in 2011, seems to be a haven for this kind of lower to mid-budget fare, though, so hopefully they can continue to produce content like this and Joe Carnahan’s The Grey and less like the Wayans spoof A Haunted House. Until next time…