I will start off this review with a question from a fan (my mom): “In your review, I just want to know, is Side Effects a thriller? Like, could a super, super scaredy cat who was the most anxious she’s ever been in her life watching Argo, even though I knew the ending, watch this movie?” The answer is yes, and please do, mom…and everyone. Side Effects is great fun that starts as a psychological thriller and quickly and rightly shifts to twisty-turny pharmaceutical and legal drama. Its numerous surprises and 180-degree turns are handled adeptly, much more so, than, say, Broken City’s, another plot-layered movie starring Catherine Zeta-Jones. Though while Broken City’s layers are revealed like a person with no hands hacking away at a potato with a blunt knife, Side Effects’ layers are gingerly peeled back by an expert chef (or two), Steven Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns. They forego any shock factor and instead, thank goodness, concentrate on kneading each twist and turn to get every important plot point to rise wholly and gracefully.
Side Effects begins with Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) reuniting with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) after he served four years in prison for insider trading. Emily is depressed and suicidal and begins seeing Dr. Jonathan Banks, a good-hearted psychiatrist with a nice face and an adorable accent (Jude Law). He prescribes several medications that don’t seem to work and finally settles on Ablixa (a made up drug). Until then, the movie is a sort of cheeky commentary on the prescription drug culture; it seems everyone Emily cries in front of has a recommendation for which antidepressant she should try next. Then, suddenly, for a moment, it becomes a hazy, drug-induced psycho-thriller, which turns it on its head and sets the film off in another direction, like one of those toy cars you wind up and flip around once it hits the wall.
The rest of Side Effects has Dr. Banks running around, attempting to get at the truth, trying to save his name and livelihood after a nasty incident occurs when Emily’s under the influence of Ablixa. It’s a relentless volley of blame and deception that keeps you rapt and rooting for the good guys. Not as much a whodunit as it is a how- and whydunit, Side Effects’ questions and twists are not all-together unpredictable, but it doesn’t matter because they are refreshingly atypical.
Rooney Mara is a great depressed-wife-of-a-guy-who-just-got-out-of-prison. She is mousy and wide-eyed and empty. My only complaint is that she doesn’t pull off her housewife past life with Martin, before he was arrested. We get glimpses of their Greenwich, CT mansion, the pastels, the champagne, the convertibles, but Rooney Mara is too skiddish and odd to ever seem like she would even want to fit into that world.
Jude Law is beautiful… Oh, his performance. Right. He’s actually really good – a doctor hell-bent on proving the truth and not getting sucked in to others’ ideas of acceptable protocol in delicate legal situations such as the one in which he finds himself. He’s that embodiment of the personal struggle that occurs when a seemingly settled situation doesn’t sit quite right. Do you risk looking like the crazy person and pursue it further knowing that it could mean your life will never be the same? Or do you sit back and let it go and wait for things to go back to normal? Dr. Banks’s inevitable and very well-played progression is from staunch adherence to ethical procedure to dogged preservation of self.
There is a certain level of Soderbergh-y ridiculousness to the movie. Some things that happen are so over-the-top that you say to yourself, “I should be rolling my eyes! This is crazy!” but you don’t. You go with it, because it’s Steven Soderbergh and he can get away with it, and because it is just so darn entertaining.
There are several qualities of Side Effects that could be described as “Soderbergh-y,” if only for the way they are pointedly different from most other films we are seeing in mainstream theaters these days. The dreamy, creepy score, the skilled yet uneasy performances by actors in roles we don’t normally see them, the sometimes cheesy but nevertheless effective cinematography. If this is truly his last film, which he claims it to be (can’t really blame the man for wanting to retire – he’s made a whole lot of movies, but it’s hard to believe he won’t ever make another), at least it’s a satisfying, characteristically, Soderbergh-ily experimental and strange and super fun one.