Side Effects (Grade: B)
Concluding Steven Soderbergh’s filmmaking career with a whimper instead of a bang, Side Effects is a skillfully constructed, but relatively conventional thriller. Emily (Rooney Mara) is married to Martin, a Wall Street broker who has just served four years in prison for insider trading. Soon after Martin’s release, Emily is struck with a debilitating depression. Her new psychiatrist (Jude Law) makes the case that an experimental drug may be the solution and Emily agrees to give it a shot. After an impressive start, this mysterious drug begins to cause a series of unforeseen complications, including sleepwalking and other unsettling, even violent… side effects.
Initially positioning itself in opposition to the more questionable practices of doctors and pharmaceutical companies, Side Effects ultimately lets these targets off the hook. Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns are more interested in narrative surprise than a thorough investigation of their themes—though they do draw playful, intriguing parallels between greed and mental illness—which results in a film that ultimately feels slight and carelessly complacent.
One of the problems that has plagued Soderbergh throughout his career, but has become particularly apparent in recent years, is his lazy approach to characterization. In stark contrast to the filmmaker he was when he made sex, lies, and videotape, Soderbergh has become a slave to narrative efficiency, a mindset that results in bland, unoriginal characters drawn with a minimum of nuance or texture. In this case, the problem originates with Burns’ screenplay, which features many lazily scripted, subtext-deprived scenes, where characters bluntly state their frustrations, motivations, and intentions. In addition, we are subjected to verbal recaps late in the film that make connections we’ve long since made ourselves.
Working from this disadvantage, Jude Law—whose character ultimately emerges as the film’s protagonist—delivers an impressively urgent, authentic performance. Rooney Mara and (particularly) Catherine Zeta-Jones are more problematic, particularly in the film’s final third when their characters veer off into increasingly cartoonish soap opera territory.
While Soderbergh’s ruthlessly efficient approach undermines the film’s human dimension, his handling of the script’s intricate narrative is impressive. In a sense, the film functions as an elaborate con. While many of the revelations late in the film retroactively diminish earlier scenes, Soderbergh and Burns do a good job of concealing and revealing their film’s central deception.
Unfortunately, Soderbergh’s preoccupation with sterile good taste prevents him from delivering the kind of raw, uninhibited pulp we’d get from a more seasoned genre filmmaker. Instead, he is content to expertly recapitulate the formula of ’80s thrillers like Fatal Attraction, a film Soderbergh has listed as a crucial influence on Side Effects. It’s a curiously modest ambition for a respected auteur’s swan song, but one that suggests he may not be finished yet.