Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Scott Z. Burns. Produced by Scott Z. Burns, Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Gregory Jacobs. Music by Thomas Newman. Photographed by Peter Andrews (Steven Soderbergh). Production designed by Howard Cummings. Starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum.
Side Effects, the new film by director Steven Soderbergh, begins as sharp social commentary and concludes as a fine psychological thriller. Somewhere in the middle, where the two meet, the fusion is imperfect. Befitting a movie that charts the jangled psyches of damaged people, it’s schizophrenic in its approach. Soderbergh often toggles between large, intelligent Hollywood films (Out of Sight, Contagion, Ocean’s Eleven, Erin Brockovich) and smaller, personal dramas laced with cultural implications (Traffic, Magic Mike, Solaris, Sex Lies and Videotape). Side Effects feels like a slightly uneven mix of both sensibilities, as Soderbergh uses the first half to make pointed observations about the frightening reach of pharmaceuticals, and then folds that into a conventional murder mystery. It’s well-made the whole way through, but Soderbergh’s real interest seems to lie with the points he scores early; everything else feels like a (strong) professional exercise.
Rooney Mara stars as Emily Taylor, a Manhattan graphic designer who loses an opulent lifestyle when her wealthy husband, Martin (Channing Tatum) is indicted for insider trading. She downsizes into a more modest existence and welcomes her husband home years later, and both events cause a long battle with depression, manifesting itself most dramatically when she rams her car into a parking garage wall. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), writes her prescriptions that don’t work before landing on Ablixa, a new drug to the market that’s praised by Emily’s former doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Soon enough, Dr. Banks is learning that Ablixa causes fits of sleepwalking, but he can prescribe more pills to fine-tune poor Emily’s body chemistry, right?
I now must be careful to preserve secrets. Let it be said that Emily is soon accused of murder, perhaps under the influence of her medication…and then the film shifts gears into conspiracy thriller mode. Banks takes center stage as he tries to piece together what happened to Emily, as the fallout for having treated Emily’s behavior eventually gobbles up his marriage, his practice, and even his legal protection; he drifts dangerously close to being prosecuted himself. The film is persuasive in the pressure it puts under Banks, taking a Hitchcock-like shape as he watches his life burn, simply because he did his job, just perhaps not well enough.
There are further twists, and I won’t hint at them. But I do think the yarn that Soderbergh and his writer (Scott Z. Burns) ultimately spin grows increasingly complex and unlikely. I believe them when the ultimately hold certain parties responsible for some of the film’s events, but the totality of those charges gives everyone involved a bit too much credit.
However, the film’s preposterousness isn’t really the issue. Many thrillers are preposterous. What hurts is that it starts by painting a frighteningly realistic portrait of pharmaceutical companies that market mood-altering medications like they’re ice cream flavors, and how even honest doctors are typically in the pockets of such entities, one way or the other. The movie essentially has two types of characters: those prescribing drugs and those buying them, leading to the implication that our society is overmedicated. One striking moment has Banks slipping his wife (Andrea Bogart) a beta blocker to “help her be herself.” A later scene shows Banks beginning a web search for Ablixa, only to discover a pop-up ad right on the Yahoo! front page.
After those insightful moments, the conspiracy thriller elements feel like a disappointment, since the way they ultimately conclude assumes a large number of red herrings. It’s very entertaining, but also suggests that Soderbergh couldn’t figure a third act that flowed organically from the story’s more trenchant setup.
The performances and direction are exemplary. Mara solidifies her character actress status here, unwrapping more and more layers of her mind as the mystery spirals out. Law is superb, as his clipped British accent proves a good contrast to the story’s desperation. Soderbergh, a master craftsman, once again uses himself as cinematographer (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), and he remains one of the most versatile and consistent do-it-yourself artists in filmmaking today.
Side Effects is Soderbergh’s twenthy-seventh feature film, and, if he is to believed, his final one as a director. That may account for some of Side Effects’ restlessness, but the movie does work as a drawing together of most of Soderbergh’s favorite themes (to list them would be telling). If Soderbergh makes good on his promise to leave Hollywood behind, I will deeply miss him. His body of work is as eclectic as it is compelling. If this ends up being his final film, Side Effects may be due for a re-analysis. As it stands right now, it’s a fine thriller, but it could have been a great social message film. It falls short. Its best line comes early, when a bored pharmacist rattles off a disgusting list of side effects for Ablixa, and then asks without missing a beat: “Are you paying cash?”