If Side Effects represents the final time that a new Steven Soderbergh film will debut in theaters, then the filmmaker has gone out with an effective thriller that certainly doesn’t rank among his top tier works, but is easily one of his most digestible. Teaming up once again with scribe Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh has made an impeccably crafted genre entry that reminded me a lot of Alfred Hitchcock’s work. While the material isn’t as unique as I would have preferred for this farewell for the man sometimes known as Peter Andrews (at least when he does his own cinematography), there are some very nice performances to take note of. To be fair, the screenplay is more than smart and twisty enough than you’d expect for a February release, but the acting of Jude Law and Rooney Mara are really what I found most engaging. I honestly don’t have a lot of complaints about this movie, unless you count hoping that Soderbergh wasn’t wrapping up with this one (not counting his HBO movie about Liberace). It’s somewhat workmanlike, but the workman is so good you quickly get wrapped up in this story of prescription pills, therapy, and anxiety.
For Emily Taylor (Mara), the last few years haven’t been easy. Her ideal life with her husband Martin (Tatum) is upended when he’s arrested for insider trading. Henry is about to be released from prison, so by all rights Emily should be overjoyed. Her smile is hiding some deep sadness though, and shortly after the couple is reunited Emily has a car accident that suggests a suicide attempt. Instead of being hospitalized, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law) allows her to come visit him for therapy sessions. A psychiatrist with aspirations to make a real name for himself, he quickly becomes quite interested in Emily’s situation. Emily previously saw a therapist named Erica Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and Jonathan goes so far as to contact her for more information. He prescribes a new pill to help with her anxiety and depression, but there are some unexpected side effects. Emily and Martin voice their concerns, but when nothing is done, the side effects only get worse. I won’t say more about what happens, but I will say that just about every twist works for the flick, even if some of them are telegraphed a little more than I’d prefer.
At this early stage, Rooney Mara still has to contend with the shadow of her brilliant work in the remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. While this performance doesn’t approach that, this is still a very good performance that suggests a bright future ahead for her. She really has to go to extremes at times, but Mara also has some devastating quiet moments. It’s really a great job on her part. Jude Law has the biggest part aside from Mara and he’s also quite good, though it’s somewhat of a more expected type of performance. Law does feel like he’s channeling some of Hitchcock’s leading men, and while it works, it doesn’t blow you away or anything. Still, Law is better than he’s been in a bit. Channing Tatum continues to make me eat some of my words that I’ve said about him in years prior, while Catherine Zeta-Jones is engaged in a way I haven’t seen her be in a few movies. The rest of the supporting cast includes Ann Dowd, Vinessa Shaw, David Paymer, and Mamie Gummer.
I think I slightly preferred the last collaboration of Steven Soderbergh and Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, for those who don’t remember), but this is still good work and suggests a relationship that I wish we were going to see more of. Soderbergh again does his own camera work in addition to directing, and while he’s not outright aping Hitchcock, he’s clearly aware of the similarities of this movie to the work of that filmmaker. Burns’ script might have one twist too many for some, and it’s not quite the movie that you’re expecting, but he sets things up in such a way that you’re committed early on and ready for just about anything that’s to come. Neither is doing the best work of their careers, but there’s a lot to like here without a doubt.
Overall, Side Effects fits better as a middle of a career outing than as a swan song, but Steven Soderbergh is on his game here no matter how you slice it. With fine work from the cast, a noir-ish take on therapy through prescription drugs, and plot developments that have the potential to shock, Soderbergh can be very proud of this movie. It may not be the type of film that he made his career with, but then again, he’s also made a career out of defying expectations and never doing what you’d expect him to. I’ll hold out hope that this supposed retirement is more of a sabbatical, but if we’ve seen the last new Soderbergh movie hit the big screen, he’s managed to end on a note of true quality. Everyone should cross their fingers that this isn’t the end, but everyone should also head out and see this flick. Consider that my diagnosis for a good time at the movies!
–Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!