Side Effects (***) - The Awards Circuit - By Clayton Davis

Side Effects (***)

Steven Soderbergh's theatrical swan song is a nifty flick that owes a great deal to Hitchcock...

side_effectsIf 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.

side-effects-girl-cryingAt 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!

Joey Magidson (1481 Posts)

When he’s not obsessing over new Oscar predictions on a weekly basis, Joey is seeing between 200 and 300 movies a year. He views the best in order to properly analyze the awards race/season each year, but he also watches the worst for reasons he mostly sums up as "so you all don't have to". In his spare time, you can usually find him complaining about the Jets or the Mets. Still, he lives and dies by film. Joey's a voting member of the Internet Film Critics Association as well. Today the IFCA, tomorrow the world!


  • Will

    I think Soderbergh is one of the finest directors of the modern era and a true master of cinema. He was able to take the mainstream by storm and still make the movies he wanted to. I’m glad he was able to make Side Effects and I think it has enough Soderberghian tics to be a fitting “end” to his career.

    He always seemed content just working rather than working on something that would be a masterpiece. Even with an Oscar to his credit he remains, in my eyes, one of the most underrated directors today. It’s a shame he’s leaving, but I’m hoping against hope it isn’t for real.

    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

      I have that same hope that we’ll see him again…

  • UBourgeois

    I don’t know, I felt it was kind of a fitting end for Soderbergh’s career. Like its director, it keeps changing its direction on us.

    I’d also say it was better than Contagion. but that’s just me.

    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

      Fair enough…

  • Jessie Makowski

    I liked it, but what was supposed to be a twist ending ruined the intrigue of the initial questions that had me interested in the first place.

    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

      That’s a valid point, but it didn’t bother me personally…

  • steve

    I thought the only good twist was *SPOILER* that Mara and Zeta-Jones were lovers. The other big one was pretty obvious. Enjoyable nonetheless. Mara had a pretty good performance and Zeta-Jones and Law were better than they’ve been in a while. Channing Tatum is…in the movie. And he has a hat! Sad to see Soderbergh go, but he could’ve done worse for his last go round.

    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

      He certainly could have done much worse…

  • George

    As a huge Soderbergh fanboy, I loved Side Effects and think it’s his best film since The Girlfriend Experience. It was surprisingly fun for a Soderbergh film and Jude Law fit perfectly as a smarmy leading man. Soderbergh is an artist and no director can come close to even imitating his style because it’s so unique…so sad to see him go.

    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

      I’m glad I’m not the only one who dug The Girlfriend Experience…

  • Kim

    This is one I’ll try and check out

    • http://TheAwardsCircuit Joey Magidson

      Go for it…