Side Effects - Movie Review

Side Effects - Movie Review

You’re unlikely to feel woozy after taking in Side Effects, but you may well walk away feeling pretty icky.

And my bet is that is exactly what Steven Soderbergh hopes to prescribe: a reality check couched in a thriller.

For the director has reteamed with his Contagion and Informant screenwriter Scott Z. Burns to deliver a neat little noir, that comes with an added dose of social smack down as they take a swing at Big Pharma and the casual medicalisation of Western culture.

Within the film we’re shown warm and fuzzy posters for anti-depressants, and the dreamy, aspirational TV ads that go along with them. We listen in on blasé conversations between colleagues where different drugs are compared and recommended. We bear witness to a psychiatrist dosing his wife up on beta blockers before her big job interview; a drug that “makes it easier to be who you are.”

And that’s before we even get to the fancy long lunches and sycophantic wheeler dealing that goes on between the drug reps and the doctors. Soderbergh and Burns show it all, and yes sometimes they show too much. But if Contagion faltered as it succumbed to melodrama and hysteria, Side Effects manages to be  much more cannily insidious.

All of this social critique forms the caustic backdrop for a psychological thriller surrounding a depressed young woman, Emily (Roony Mara) who slips into a depressive abyss after her husband (Channing Tatum) returns home from a stint in jail for insider trading. When Emily winds up in hospital, she comes under the care of a well-meaning psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law), who tries to find the right cocktail of drugs to help Emily find her feet again. Dr. Banks also seeks counsel from Emily’s previous therapist, Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), but to say any more would be to spoil the many twists and turns Soderbergh has in store for you.  

Suffice it to say, that there’s plenty more on offer than a few teary trips to the therapist.

Mara is perfectly cast as the conflicted wife and troubled soul. After impressing us in both The Social Network and, more dramatically, in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Mara proves her range yet again, as Emily appears the epitome of quaking vulnerability. Soderbergh also proves the camera worships her face, as he uses shallow depth of field to bask upon her haunted, and increasingly deadened eyes.

Jude Law similarly impresses as a doctor pushed to the limits. After his bizarre, histrionic turn in Contagion, it’s nice to be reminded that he can build a performance in with astute nuance. Where Side Effects dabbles in film noir, Dr. Banks becomes a detective of sorts, and Law displays a deft hand with the genre’s obsessive and anti-heroic demands.

Fans of Soderbergh’s Magic Mike will be sad to see so little – ahem – of Channing Tatum this time around. But abs aside, there is no question that Soderbergh brings the best out of Tatum, who shows increasing command with each dramatic performance. 

The same can’t be said for Catherine Zeta-Jones, who feels like she’s in a different movie – possibly a cartoon. Her ultra-slick, cat-who-got-the-cream routine feels out of sync with the rest of the understated performances. And again, without giving anything away, her storyline is easily the weakest and one of the film’s major disappointments.

The greatest disappointment, however, will be if Side Effects is really Soderbergh’s swan song. Not to imply that he’s gone out with a whimper, not a bang, but rather to impress that he’s too sodding talented a filmmaker to give it up! Yes we still have his HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra to look forward to, but then will he actually call it quits?

That will be the real bitter pill to swallow.

But all the more reason to forget what it ways on the warning label, and take Side Effects in with a big glass of wine.

Cheers, Soderbergh.

(Images via FDC and teaser-trailer.com)


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