Director: Steven Soderbergh
This review originally appeared on Ramp.ie
The MacGuffin at the heart of Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is Ablixa, an anti-depressant prescribed to Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) after a suicide attempt. The mood swings she goes through in Side Effects are almost as up and down as the quality of Soderbergh’s output of late; for every Girlfriend Experience, there’s a Contagion. Side Effects is being mooted as Soderbergh’s last film as a director (besides his TV biopic of Liberace with Michael Douglas), so it’s good to see that he’s going out on a high note.
After Erin Brockovich and The Informant!, Side Effects would appear to complete Soderbergh’s three-pronged critique of big chemical industries. That said, Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns aren’t going after an industry so much as a culture. Through Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a British emigré psychiatrist, Side Effects looks at America’s prescription drug culture from an outsider’s point of view. Emily’s efforts to kill herself come from the stress of her rogue trader husband Martin (Channing Tatum) being released from prison and the accompanying readjustments. Banks has no qualms about prescribing the newly-released Ablixa, until a murder is reported for which Emily is the only possible suspect. With no memory of the incident, is Emily a victim of her meds or a liar? It’s a compulsive setup, and Burns milks it for all it’s worth, with enough plot twists to induce whiplash. Banks has to factor in all possibilities, and he sets about consulting other psychiatrists, including Emily’s former therapist Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones, vampy). As one twist piles up on another it does lapse into silliness, but you’ll be too entertained to worry about that.
Side Effects is proof of Soderbergh’s wide directorial skill set. He can deliver a sleek and handsome package whilst still grounding some potentially unwieldy material. His camerawork (under his regular pseudonym Peter Andrews) bears not a blemish, and tight editing ensures that the plot comes at us fast, even when it’s contorted in on itself. Shorn of the novelites of Lisbeth Salander, Mara proves she can own the screen, whilst Law appears to have found the first director since the late Anthony Minghella who really knows how to use him. After being Contagion’s saving grace, Law’s slowly aging face and exasperation make him the human side of Side Effects, as the blame for Emily’s circumstances shifts to him and he becomes the ultimate victim of Ablixa. Side Effects is proof that, as an actor, he’s improving with age. It also proves that Soderbergh’s side-step to other projects is a loss to film fans. Side Effects is no classic but, as slick potboilers go, it’s just what the doctor ordered.