Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Scott Z. Burns.
Starring: Rooney Mara (Emily Taylor), Jude Law (Dr. Jonathan Banks), Catherine Zeta-Jones (Dr. Victoria Siebert), Channing Tatum (Martin Taylor), Vinessa Shaw (Dierdre Banks), Ann Dowd (Martin’s Mother), Polly Draper (Emily's Boss), Michael Nathanson (Assistant District Attorney), Sheila Tapia (Emily's Attorney).
Steven Soderbergh’s is a tight, nifty little thriller. It is well acted by the entire cast, well written by longtime Soderbergh collaborator Scott Z. Burn, contains a marvelous score by Thomas Newman – the type of score that elevates the entire movie, but will never be nominated for an Oscar, and is well directed by Soderbergh himself – who of course, also served as editor and cinematographer. And yet, as good as the movie is – and it is quite good – I could not help but be slightly underwhelmed by the film. Walking into the theater, I was pretty sure I knew how the movie was going to end (thanks trailers!) and sure enough, everything played out pretty much exactly as I expected it would. Considering this is apparently the last feature film by Soderbergh (he will release his apparently final film, Behind the Candelabra on HBO later this year), I was a little let down. Soderbergh had entered a very good segment of his career – making great little genre films like Haywire, Contagion and Magic Mike, and while Side Effects is good, it doesn’t quite measure up.
The movie stars Rooney Mara as Emily Taylor. She is married to Martin (Channing Tatum) who is just getting out of jail after four years for insider trading (perhaps the most preposterous of the movie’s plot points is that anyone on Wall Street would go to jail for anything they do). But while she loves her husband, she is also depressed – trying her best to put on a happy face, but inwardly she’s hurting. After a “cry for help” suicide attempt, where she drives her car into a wall, a psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is called in for a consult – and while he agrees to let her go, he also insists that she start going to therapy – and start taking anti-depressants. They try a few drugs, and nothing works, but then Emily suggests one of the new drugs – you know the ones on TV with happy people running through a meadow, while a voiceover lists off dozens of possible side effects. Banks doesn’t see the harm in trying her on them – and after consulting with her old doctor Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he writes a prescription. And he keeps her on them even after she starts sleepwalking, and preparing meals in her sleep. You probably see where this is going, but if you don’t, I won’t spoil it for you. But, of course, it leads to movie’s psychological thriller roots – where one of Emily or Jonathan, is going to have to pay for what Emily does. And all is not precisely what it appears to be.
The performances in the movie are quite good. I was a little disappointed that after her great performance in last year’s Compliance (the best performance NOT nominated for an Oscar in 2012), that Ann Dowd is given nothing to do as Martin’s mother – but she’s a character actress, and she plays her role well. Tatum is good as the Wall Street guy, who made a mistake, has paid for it, and really does seem to want to turn his life around. Catherine Zeta-Jones is very good as Dr. Siebert – but Ebert’s law of economy of characters applies with her. Essentially, because Zeta-Jones is a movie star (not to mention an Oscar winner), you know immediately that her role will turn out to be far more complicated than it at first appears. Still, she plays it well. It’s really the two main performances that are excellent. Law plays Banks as cocksure and confident, until his life starts to completely unravel, and seems powerless to stop it – and than starts to seem paranoid. Is he right, or just so convinced that he could not be wrong that he’s grasping at straws? And Rooney Mara is even better as Emily, as she spirals down into depression, and tries to keep herself under control.
Side Effects certainly takes us into Hitchcock territory – with a modern pharmaceutical twist. We have the “innocent man wrongly accused” and lying women, and as I mentioned before, an excellent score by Thomas Newman, who may just be the best composer working right now at twisting classic movie score elements for modern use (just look at his score for Soderbergh’s The Good German, the only good thing about the film, or how he twists Bond music in Skyfall). The screenplay is well written, and Soderbergh could do this type of thriller in his sleep, but doesn’t. He pulls out some interesting things from his seemingly bottomless bag of tricks.
But perhaps it’s harder now to make a Hitchcockian thriller than it was in Hitchcock’s day. Modern audiences sit there waiting for the other shoe to drop – the twist ending they aren’t supposed to see coming. But, unfortunately for Side Effects, I did see the twist coming, before I even sat down in the theater. So essentially, I spent much of the movie waiting for the characters to catch up to me.
Side Effects is a good movie. It is rare to see a thriller like this as well acted and directed as Side Effects is. Undoubtedly, unless you still need to catch up on some Oscar films, Side Effects is the best film to see in theaters right now. But considering its early February, which typically (along with January) is when studios dump a lot of crap into theaters, that’s not saying very much. Perhaps my disappointment in Side Effects has more to do with the fact that unless Soderbergh is lying or changes his mind, I will never walk into a theater to see a new Soderbergh film again. He has been a pretty consistent director since the late 1990s – producing at least one decent to great film seemingly every year. And Side Effects is decent. But from the director who has produced such films as Out of Sight, The Limey, Traffic, Contagion, Haywire and Magic Mike (and that’s just the tip of the iceberg), Side Effects is certainly going out with a bit of a whimper instead of a bang.