If you enjoy watching despicable people doing terrible things to each other, buddy, have I got a movie for you!
And, as it just so happens, I do like that in a movie. When those despicable actions are crafted by a master, escalating with breathtaking speed, even better.
Side Effects is ostensibly director Steven Soderbergh’s last movie before he retires to work on his watercolors and his back cast. Is the film deserving of such heady responsibility? Well, I don't know about that. But on its own, Side Effects is a twisty and tawdry thriller that keeps you riveted even when it doesn’t quite keep you guessing.
Rooney Mara is Emily Taylor, a young woman beset with anxiety at the prospect of her husband’s return from prison, where he's spent the past few years incarcerated for insider trading. Channing Tatum plays her husband Martin, and though the two are loving with each other, they’re having a tough time transitioning back into a life together. The turmoil isn’t helped by Emily’s chronic depression and suicidal tendencies. Emily suffers complications from every anti-depressant she takes, until her concerned psychiatrist Dr. Banks (Jude Law) consults her former psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and the two come up with a chemical strategy for Emily. The new pill Ablixa appears to be the cure for all of Emily’s troubles, with just one little side effect – a side effect with devastating consequences for the Taylors and for Dr. Banks.
Side Effects is really Jude Law’s movie. Dr. Banks seems to be a good doctor who cares about his patients. He has a beautiful new wife and a loving young step-son, and he works hard to provide for them while his wife is between jobs. He seems to be a man of general integrity, but the high-pressure temptations of drug reps create a shadowy ethical field in which Dr. Banks is expected to play. Law’s great here, earnest but stringent, and he’s backed up with excellent performances by Zeta-Jones, Tatum and especially Mara, who captivates with her luminous frailty.
Not long into the film we see an ad for Ablixa, as a melodic voice speaks over images of mournful women staring into the distance with an animated cloud raining over their heads. Is Ablixa right for you? Emily thinks it might be. She endures a recognizable roster of undesirable side effects from her previous anti-depressants: loss of sexual drive, nausea, headaches. She’s treated for those complications with new medications, all competing to battle the “poisonous fog” that rolls into her brain every day.
While Side Effects appears from the outset to be a film about the dangers of overmedication in our society – and while that alone would have been enough for an absorbing story, and one with something legitimate to say – it’s actually something more. No, actually it's just something different. The film darts deftly between genres, giving us family melodrama, courtroom suspense and romantic thriller with equal enthusiasm. But once you settle into what this movie truly is, a stylish and somewhat trashy noir, it won’t take you long to figure out where it’s going from there.
Side Effects is entertaining and sharply executed – after all, this is Soderbergh, and he shoots the film gorgeously and directs with razor-taut tension. But I can’t help but wish that the screenplay by his frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns had a little more going for it. Twists are telegraphed, motivations are lacking. Of the four lead characters, only Banks comes off as a credible human. Emily and her former shrink, Zeta-Jones’ Dr. Victoria Siebert, especially suffer in this department, thin and puny, unsubstantial.
But the worst offense of Side Effect’s script is that it simply falls apart in retrospect. To say more would be to spoil, and that’s a problem. The best stories remain strongly compelling even if their final acts have been divulged. I don’t think that’s true of Side Effects. I had a lot of fun watching it, but I suspect a second viewing would lose some of its brio. Too much here relies on twists and surprises.
That said, the film is stylish and engaging, daring and energetic. Soderbergh is that rare director who can turn a clunky screenplay into something almost entirely delicious, and with Side Effects he does exactly that.