According to Steven Soderbergh, “Side Effects” is the filmmaker’s final feature-length directing credit — and it shows, partly because this rambling genre exercise, while skillful, offers nothing new.
Soderbergh’s future plans contain far more ambiguity and details: He has the HBO Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra,” insists he may still direct more television and theater, and generally maintains the restless spirit of an artist quite likely to pull a Stephen King and dive back into the art form for a second round after purging it from his system. As anyone familiar with Soderbergh’s amazingly versatile work knows, anything is possible — including the possibility that with “Side Effects,” he’s effectively phoning it in.
“Side Effects” takes a page from the “Fatal Attraction” school of late eighties/early nineties erotic thrillers, chucking it onto a contemporary hook: the pratfalls of the pharmaceutical industry. When administrative assistant Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) grows depressed after her suave husband (Channing Tatum) gets out of jail following an insider trading conviction, she gets mightily depressed, even suicidal. A close call finds her seeking help from high-profile shrink Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who puts her on a series of prescription medications with a dubious impact on Emily’s emotional stability.
At first, “Side Effects” takes the form a searing activist missive against the billion-dollar business of depression medication, slyly presented as film noir — an atmospheric political allegory that smuggles its message through the lingo of popular entertainment. Then it starts to turn in on itself with a series of increasingly tiring “Gotcha!” moments at first too clever for their own good and finally not clever enough.
Locked up in an insanity ward following a violent incident, Emily’s motives and the source of her troubles fall into suspicion, as does the energetic Dr. Banks’ investment in his client. Adding to the pileup of questions, Emily’s sultry former doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones) may or may not have a degree of influence over the mounting questions pertaining to Emily’s breakdown. Who’s conning who and how much does the medication have to do with it? By the time “Side Effects” arrives at those answers, it’s hard to care. The movie doles out mysteries better than their solutions.
In Soderbergh’s hands, however, even the overdone material maintains such an agreeable flow that it’s easy to get swept up in the story, particularly during its cryptic first half. The scenes pile up with frenetic intensity; as with his other recent exercises in the suspense genre, “Haywire” and “Contagion,” no single cutaway goes wasted.
Emily’s mournful reaction shots are telling, while Law appears to have more fun with the investigatory doctor role than anything he’s done in years, leading to a fresh look at the actor’s onscreen vitality not unlike the revitalizing showcase Soderbergh provided for Matthew McConaughey in last year’s “Magic Mike.” The actors are as consumed by the material as its audience. Snippets of dialogue push the plot forward without burying it in a thousand details, and the narrative as a whole barrels ahead while creating the sense that it’s constantly building toward… something.
There are a number of possibilities as to the nature of that revelation, but one of them is not the apotheosis of Soderbergh’s career. If “Side Effects” constitutes a swan song for the filmmaker, he’s going out with style rather than in style. This is his weakest narrative feature since “Ocean’s Thirteen,” but more subdued where that movie was emptily spectacular. Soderbergh unfurls a series of twists as if he were blaring Alfred Hitchcock’s name through a megaphone at every potential lull in the storyline. The MacGuffins keep coming to the point where even when “Side Effects” is satisfying, it starts to tire out. In context, “Side Effects” is essentially a side effect of getting too good at one form of expression: Soderbergh can do this kind of thing in his sleep, and now he’s ready to wake up.
Criticwire grade: B+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Open Road Films releases “Side Effects” nationwide on Friday. With fairly strong critical support during this weak time of the year for box office performance, it could provide solid returns during its opening weekend and possibly beyond before fading to the background when bigger releases start coming out in March. Watch the trailer below: