Side Effects (United States, 2013)

February 06, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Side Effects Poster

There's something delightfully old-fashioned about Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects. It's the kind of thriller that Alfred Hitchcock might make if he was still alive and active today. It never seeks to do too much with the premise nor does it go overboard with plot twists and narrative contortions. Instead, the movie is content to keep viewers engaged by changing our perceptions of events and characters as the plot unfolds.

For a while, it seems that Side Effects will be an examination of the ethics associated with the increasingly frequent prescription of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs. Saturation advertising has turned depression, a legitimate psychological illness, into a ubiquitous condition. By apparently concentrating on this aspect of the story, Soderbergh is able to execute a deft sleight-of-hand and redirect the focus in another direction. As foreshadowed by the brief flash-forward that opens the movie, Side Effects shifts gear and adopts one of Hitchcock's favorite plots: the innocent man wrongly accused.

Side Effects opens by introducing us to 28-year old Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a devoted wife who is eagerly awaiting the release of her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), from prison, where he has served a four year sentence for insider trading. Martin's return home, however, is only the beginning of Emily's ordeal. She slips into depression, nearly killing herself when she rams her car into a parking garage wall. This results in regular therapy sessions with Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), an ambitious psychiatrist who sometimes seems more interested in pursuing drug studies with pharmaceutical companies than properly evaluating and medicating his patients. With Emily, he cares enough to visit her previous therapist, Erica Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), but doesn't learn much of interest. The medication Jonathan prescribes for Emily's condition controls her suicidal impulses but results in instances of extreme sleepwalking. When a tragedy occurs, Jonathan finds his methods under scrutiny as a media firestorm erupts around him.

Although Side Effects contains many of the conventions of a twisty "refrigerator movie" (as Hitchcock called them, referring to films that hold together on an initial viewing but not necessarily afterwards), it is careful enough to avoid plot elements that are extreme or overly sensationalistic. The relationships between patients and doctors follow most of the real-world rules. The interaction between bad news stories and stock implications is incorporated as a key story point. There's no attempt to depict or imply any kind of sexual relationship between Jonathan and Emily - something we keep expecting because that's seemingly how things always go in these sort of movies. In some ways, Side Effects reminded me of Primal Fear, the Richard Gere/Edward Norton thriller, although this one is smarter and more low-key.

Playing Emily gives Rooney Mara a chance to move away from the long shadow of Lisbeth Salander, a role that may end up defining her decade if the final two films of the Millennium Trilogy are made. She's very good here in a difficult part. Channing Tatum, who has appeared in Soderbergh's most recent three films, offers a solid and reliable presence. His growth as a performer has been steady in recent years as he has developed his craft. Jude Law is more than capable of handling the ambiguities of his role, which include arrogance and obsession. The only one possibly miscast is Catherine Zeta-Jones, whose portrayal is a little too obvious from her first scene.

It has been reported that Side Effects may be Soderbergh's final theatrical feature. Frustrated by the motion picture system, he has decided to focus on television and "other areas." One can hope that he has a change of heart because there are few filmmakers who are as courageous and reliable as Soderbergh. His filmography is deliciously nuanced and, while he delivers the occasional dud, the quickness with which he works virtually assures that the misses are hiccups. Soderbergh has never been predictable - a quality that frustrates with many filmmakers. Following up Magic Mike with Side Effects, films that are dramatically different, is only the latest example. Side Effects is a workmanlike thriller that's better than the time of year when it's being released. It's not Soderbergh at his best but it never lost my attention. If this is Soderbergh's big screen swansong, it's a respectable way to go out, but those of us who appreciate his quirkiness and versatility can be forgiven hoping this isn't the last act.

Side Effects (United States, 2013)

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vinessa Shaw
Screenplay: Scott Z. Burns
Cinematography: Steven Soderbergh
Music: Thomas Newman
U.S. Distributor: Open Road Films
Run Time: 1:43
U.S. Release Date: 2013-02-08
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1