If Side Effects truly is Steven Soderbergh‘s final theatrical film, the director has ended his storied career on a somewhat surprising note – Side Effects surely combines all the character intrigue and well-crafted filmmaking technique we expect from Soderbergh, but its seemingly unoriginal plotline will likely fall flat with a number of viewers. And yet, that does read “seemingly,” because bundled up within Scott Z. Burns’ relatively straightforward thriller-influenced screenplay is one hell of an intriguing story, one that will linger with its dedicated viewers for far longer than its swiftly-moving 106 minute runtime. It’s not Magic Mike or Ocean’s Eleven or even Erin Brockovich, but Side Effects is a more than worthy film for anyone to end their career (well, maybe) on.
Side Effects benefits most from fresh viewings and relatively uninformed audience members, ones not steeped in trailers and television spots (in fact, a couple of recent TV spots for the film have revealed far more than this critic would have liked), but the basic plot can be shared without concern over potential spoiling. Rooney Mara stars as Manhattanite Emily, a reserved young wife who is trying to delicately balance the pieces of her life in the wake of what should be a pleasant change – the recent release of her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), from a white collar prison after a four year stint for some messy professional mistakes. Emily has a history of anxiety, one that certainly wasn’t aided by Martin’s legal troubles, and things are only going to get worse for her. Perhaps this new drug prescribed by Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) will help? Yeah, right.
The film opens with a flash-forward that centers on a blood-stained apartment floor, so it’s no secret that something terrible is going to happen to Emily (and soon), butthe central questions of Side Effects are far more preoccupied with the hows and whys and whats of that situation, and that’s the tightly-wound area that Soderbergh and Burns happily occupy. The film’s terribly tense first half is a very well-calibrated bit of filmmaking, with Soderbergh filling his screen with slow zooms that approximate the pressure of claustrophobia, sky-gazing shots skyscrapers that can only be deemed oppressive, muted colors, and the unshakable sense that everything (from public transportation to household appliances) is a potential threat.
Simply put, you most likely will not see the real threat coming. Yet, Side Effects seems more intent on toying with its viewers’ expectations than in really crafting its own internal cat-and-mouse game. The actual meat of its full storyline is unexpectedly trashy and tawdry, like some unholy mix of Brian De Palma film and Lifetime Original movie. Should a full synopsis of the film be revealed, it seems primed to illicit some hefty eye rolls from potential viewers. Really? That’s it? That’s the twist? But Soderbergh and Burns have so much fun with a touch of misdirection here and a violent little surprise there, and Side Effects is made with such damn good attention to detail and stellar performances, that it’s not an easily dismissible feature by any stretch of the imagination.
Side Effects is a performance-driven vehicle, with Mara serving as the central figure of the film’s first half before giving over most of the heavy lifting to a maddened Law during its conclusion. Mara’s dead-eyed turn is perfectly suited to the role, and her inscrutable emotional state is one of the crucial elements of the entire film. Law turns in a nicely calibrated performance as Dr. Banks, and his confusion, frustration, and anger neatly mirror audience emotions. Zeta-Jones is the only casting misstep in the entire production, and even her hammy and over-the-top performance as Emily’s former psychiatrist is frequently weirdly enjoyable.
Side Effects is entertaining and intriguing in a dual fashion – it’s deeply watchable on first glance, entertaining and almost-cheesy, easily digestible and highly crafted, perfect popcorn cinema for Soderbergh aficionados, while also benefiting from a deceptively simple story that will leave its viewers wondering long after it’s ended. Side effects? Well, mainly that you won’t want Soderbergh to retire. Ever.
The Upside: A tightly-wound, well-written, and intriguing first half; Jude Law and Rooney Mara both perform admirably well; is worth considering as clever commentary on cinematic expectations at large.
The Downside: Second half slips into cliche, been-there, done-that territory; Channing Tatum is given little to do; Catherine Zeta-Jones gets just about as hammy as she ever has; film only uses intriguing medical angle as a gimmick.
On the Side: Blake Lively was originally set to play Mara’s role. That…would have been a huge mistake.