Sometimes I think Steven Soderbergh makes all his movies on a dare. “Kill off an A-list star in the first reel.” “Done!” (Contagion). “Make an action flick where fights seem like real fights.” “Done!” (Haywire). “Lure crowds of women to a movie about Americans weathering the recession.” “Done!” (Magic Mike).
In the case of Side Effects, which the prolific filmmaker has claimed is his last theatrical feature, the dare appears to be twofold. First, there’s a bait-and-switch: “Get thoughtful moviegoers into the theater for an exposé of the evils of pharmaceutical companies, then give them a silly thriller!” And the dare’s second piece: “Hold their attention by executing this silly thriller — which might have been penned by Joe Eszterhas in the ’90s — with exemplary class and restraint!”
Perhaps the whole enterprise was just too convoluted to market; audiences gave the cold shoulder to Side Effects last weekend. But Soderbergh still met both halves of the challenge admirably, drawing nuanced, thought-provoking performances from his leads. The result suggests Jagged Edge retold in the measured voice of the New Yorker.
Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) plays Emily Taylor, a young woman who has struggled with crippling depression since her adoring husband (Channing Tatum) was jailed for insider trading. His release does nothing to improve her mood, and, after an apparent suicide attempt, she’s sent to psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). He prescribes various psychoactive drugs to no avail, until a colleague suggests Ablixa, a new medication that makes Emily feel better — and, on occasion, sleepwalk. After one of the patient’s unconscious jaunts takes a nasty turn, her doctor finds himself in the hot seat.
To say more would spoil this psychological thriller’s twists and turns. Suffice it to say that Soderbergh puts us in a position where we aren’t always sure who is the story’s protagonist and who its antagonist. Mara generates so much pathos as a fragile woman stuck in a “poisonous fog,” as she puts it, that we feel for her as the doctor begins to question her version of events.
Law used to have his own propensity to sleepwalk through any role that didn’t allow him to be devilishly charming. But he seems to have learned how to inhabit his more staid characters, and he gives this one a dynamic ambivalence. Banks’ concern for his patients is palpable, but he isn’t above taking big (legal) handouts from Big Pharma to help finance his fancy new apartment and family. His patients jump with equal alacrity at the chance to participate in drug trials that make their meds free — but should they?
While Soderbergh certainly poses these bigger questions, he sidelines them in favor of the thriller plot, which also involves Catherine Zeta-Jones as Emily’s former therapist, a regrettably one-note character. Some aspects of that plot (scripted by Scott Z. Burns, who did Contagion) strain plausibility, and the film ends on an odd, sour note. (This has to be the only movie I’ve ever seen where a psychiatrist who threatens an uncooperative patient with shock treatment can be viewed as a good guy.)
Side Effects’ dialogue suggests a low-key, well-researched procedural; there are no quotable flights of Eszterhasian excess here. Soderbergh likewise steers clear of potboiler territory with his understated style, giving the Manhattan settings a hazy, almost nostalgic glow.
Was the experiment worth it? The film certainly qualifies as the rare “thriller for grown-ups,” and Mara’s performance leaves a strong impression, though her character’s motivations aren’t as well fleshed out as they should be. Overall, it’s a good enough diversion to make us sorry that Soderbergh has decided to retire from gambling on expectation-warping movies with big stars and studio money. Maybe he’ll keep taking dares on the small screen.