The Steven Soderbergh farewell tour continues. Side Effects is reportedly the prolific director’s last theatrical feature (an HBO miniseries about Liberace waits in the wings for final bows), and it’s a reasonably diverting piece of work, falling somewhere between the high of Magic Mike (2012) and the low of Haywire (2011), among his recent efforts. The premise is patently yet intriguingly ridiculous—a Manhattan-set psychological thriller that satirizes Big Pharma paranoia, while harking back to such crazy-lady favorites as Rosemary’s Baby and Fatal Attraction.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), the on-edge gal in question, is the eagerly devoted wife to Martin (Channing Tatum), a Wall Street broker who’s just finished up an insider-trading jail stint. She puts on a brave face for her hubby’s homecoming. But there’s trouble lurking beneath Emily’s cool exterior—a suicidal revulsion for her upended life that comes to light after she impulsively crashes her car into a parking-garage wall (a beautifully tense scene). This is how she meets Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychologist who begins treating Emily with the kind of creepy detachment that seems equal parts empathetic and condescending. Their early sessions are very by the book until Banks contacts Emily’s former shrink, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who recommends he prescribe his patient a new antidepressant called Ablixa. Then things start getting…odd.
We’ll stop the plot recap there, since Side Effects’s numerous narrative contortions should be experienced on their own. Suffice to say that several of these characters are not who they seem to be—in a few cases, murderously so—and Soderbergh clearly relishes illustrating the varying layers of deception in Scott Z. Burns’s screenplay. For a while, the filmmaker-cinematographer’s typically ugly digital palette, with its sickly brown-green shades and dirty-hospital-floor sheen, perfectly meshes with this sensationalistic tale of a woman seemingly done in by Hippocratic hypocrisy. (Soderbergh has a particularly fun time spoofing those self-serious prescription drug commercials, with their litany of adverse reactions.)
There’s also a surprisingly bracing empathy in the early scenes, comparable to a Golden Age of Hollywood melodrama. It helps that Soderbergh has a talented leading lady to bear the overwrought emotional weight: Divested of her Dragon Tattoo punk accoutrements, the porcelain-skinned Mara spends the first half hour etching a memorable portrait of a spiraling depressive. In a terrific scene set during an upper-crust moonlight cruise, she catches a distorted glimpse of herself in a mirror (she resembles one of Picasso’s Demoiselles made flesh), which initiates a slow, terrifying breakdown. For anyone who’s ever struggled to maintain composure in a crowd while preferring to scream your lungs out, this sequence—a powerful short film unto itself—will forcefully hit home.
Unfortunately, Side Effects turns out to be less about Emily than it does about Law’s decidedly blander Dr. Banks. Unsurprisingly, he’s got issues of his own—a sexual-battery accusation from his time as a resident; financial issues creating tension between him and his wife—that make him a perfect patsy for the movie’s villain(s). The story’s segue from intimate character study to wrong-man noir is wholly intentional and superficially gripping. But Law does little more than hit the same Parallax View paranoiac’s note over and over, until things resolve themselves a little too neatly and miraculously. The emotional depths of the film’s first half get bludgeoned by the simplistically lurid twists and turns, which hinge on some egregiously homophobic stereotypes that Soderbergh’s clinical touch fails to complicate. And a last-minute attempt to couch all we’ve seen in the everything’s-gonna-be-just-fine vernacular of the pharmaceutical industry plays like a calculatedly cynical ploy to force a Big Statement where there is none to be found. We’ll take the blue pill on this one, doctor.
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