Steven Soderbergh often fills what seem to be his lightest projects with unexpectedly meaty themes, but while his psychological thriller Side Effects features hot-button issues like mental health, drug companies, and the country’s economic woes, it’s more or less a straightforward popcorn movie -- a smart piece of escapist entertainment.
Rooney Mara stars as Emily Taylor; her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is a young businessman who, as the film opens, is soon to be released from prison after serving a few years for financial fraud. Overcome with stress, the mentally fragile Emily performs a quasi-suicide attempt and is put in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a workaholic psychiatrist who convinces Emily to see him once a week for therapy. Jonathan is intrigued enough by Emily’s story to seek counsel from her former therapist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
One night Emily commits a horrific act that she claims not to remember because she was taking the medication prescribed to her by Jonathan. This leads to a criminal and ethical examination of the psychiatrist that digs up past indiscretions and also forces him to eventually consider that he might not be getting the whole story from his patient.
Side Effects is the third collaboration between Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns. Their first, The Informant!, was a quirky satirical gem about an inveterate liar. Contagion, their follow-up, was an expert ensemble thriller about a global pandemic that was subtly laced with some strong social and political commentary. While this film has elements of both of those movies -- it’s full of people you’re never sure you can trust, and for the first half or so, it’s a quietly disturbing thriller -- it’s also the most conventional of the three.
When you’ve cobbled together a cast this solid, conventional isn’t a bad thing whatsoever. Jude Law plays a seemingly good man who may have gotten himself in over his head thanks to his ambition. Only a few times since Law transitioned from uncommonly beautiful leading man to consistently dependable character actor has he been given the chance to play a regular dude, and to watch Jonathan’s calm, patient exterior slowly crack is a great reminder of his talents. Mara has the showiest role here, and she proves yet again -- like in her turn as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and her breakout supporting performance in The Social Network -- that for someone who appears so physically slight, she has a strong presence and can hold the screen with anybody. She makes stillness both mysterious and engrossing.
Those two adjectives also aptly describe the film itself. With its tight close-ups and casual big-city backdrop, the movie’s visuals certainly recall Roman Polanski in top form -- there’s a loving homage to Rosemary’s Baby right at the start of Side Effects. The picture tickles you throughout with a sense of relentless unease; you know something is wrong, but can’t figure out what it is until Soderbergh and Burns are ready to play out the characters’ various endgames.
By Soderbergh’s own admission, this may very well be his final theatrical film. If that turns out to be true, there’s something poetically perverse about the fact that after a career balancing critically lauded efforts (sex, lies, and videotape, Out of Sight, The Limey), odd detours (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience, Schizopolis), formally challenging movies (The Good German, Che, Kafka), and blockbuster Hollywood hits and award winners (Erin Brockovich, Traffic, The Oceans’ franchise), he’d choose to bow out with the closest thing he’s made to a solid, straightforward genre flick. leave a comment --Perry Seibert