Steven Soderbergh says he’s quitting movie making and that Side Effects is his last effort. Whether or not he’s to be believed, his “final” offering is loads of pulpy, black fun for conspiracy theorists and those who enjoy byzantine plotlines and big business scares. All enveloped in the Soderbergh’s emotional and physical “cool”.
Rooney Mara, fresh off her turn in the Americanized Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, enters dark territory again as Emily, a psychiatric patient dealing with her husband’s four year prison stretch on an insider trading beef. She is of two minds about his return, she appears to those around her to have normal responses of excitement and nervousness, but there’s something stony about her.
On his return, the initial rush of love and reunion disappears quickly, replaced by a brooding wariness. She’s impassive, troubled and depressed as her psychiatrist struggles to find her a suitable medical treatment. During one drug trial, she begins sleepwalking.
Suddenly, horrifically, she turns on her husband and dispatches him with a three well-executed stabs. It looks like she won’t be charged, on a defense that she was in the throes of medication side effects.
Emily is sent to a psychiatric hospital where she continues to be treated by her psychiatrist (Jude Law) as he hunts down a suitable pill, but none works. Each has unwelcome and dangerous side effects and she appears to worsen. Her previous psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) can’t shed any light on her past experiences and seems oddly hostile towards him and his efforts to help her.
He faces new and sudden problems at home that affect his work and judgment. His wife loses her job and he needs extra income to continue the lifestyle they’re living. He agrees to take part in a pharmaceutical company program in which he tests a new drug on willing patients for a big payday. So he has turned the corner to compromise as it’s an unethical deal.
From the beginning of the movie, Soderbergh plants minute clues to what is really taking place. Side Effects is an old fashioned cat and mouse thriller with all the bells and whistles, secret documents and photos, a network of willing participants and a long history. It delves into corporate greed and marketing.
Mara‘s character is in a mental funk and her performance is one note, whether intended it or not. Emily is flat in her lingering depression but Rooney could have done more, considering the unfolding plot line. Zeta Jones is a mass of anger and tightness, and her performance is wooden beyond that requirement.
Law is great. He’s the smooth talking; well-meaning professional who moves easily into compromise convincing himself and others it’s in everyone’s best interest. It’s tough to reconcile his actions with his supposed idealism and that’s fine line for a sympathetic character to walk. He’s a tragic flawed figure, but he is determined to get to the bottom of the mysteries.
Things movie along quickly and easily. There’s no excess fat. As with most Soderbergh films, it’s cool and sophisticated with well-chosen music that highlights those qualities. And considering the plotline, it’s perfect.
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Written by Scott Z. Burns
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Opens Feb 8
MPAA: Rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language