Film review: Side Effects

Can one pill change your life? Steven Soderbergh returns as director to address this question in Side Effects … or perhaps not, as this langorous puzzler unfolds over the course of 106 minutes.  With all sorts of people taking short cuts to happiness and pleasure, including pills and get-rich-quick schemes, can we tell what’s real and what isn’t by mere observation of behavior?  Who exactly is a victim, and what or who are the perpetrators — if any?

Soderbergh is known for his smart and realistic depictions of slice-of-life dramas, and this one might be his most ambitious since Traffic thirteen years ago.  Side Effects has a warmer feel to it than Traffic, at least at first, as Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) welcomes home her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison after serving time for insider trading.  He promises to restore Emily to her life of luxury, but she falls into a depression and a presumed suicide attempt.  Enter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who eventually prescribes a new anti-depressant after consulting with Emily’s former psychiatrist, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones).  The treatment somehow goes horribly awry, and ruins the life of Banks and puts Emily on trial.  But are the medication and the treatment really to blame, or does someone have an agenda?

Side Effects has its problems, but far fewer than its virtues.  It moves a little too slowly in the first half, and then a bit too fast in the second.  The resolution seems rather pat and unrealistic, especially with Banks’ participation in it.   However, it’s difficult to say more without spoiling the film — and I don’t want to do that, because this is a film worth watching, even with those flaws acknowledged.

Soderbergh relies on subtleties to weave a complicated tale that doesn’t presume the audience is filled with idiots.  That alone makes Side Effects worth the price of admission, but the story is also a grabber, because it’s not easy to see where Soderbergh is going.  Is this an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, as Traffic was in part?  Not really, although it does seem to go in that direction for a while.  Wall Street and the wealthy?  Perhaps a touch, but not in the way one thinks.  In the end, it’s about short cuts and the need to fill destructive desires rather than live life in a straightforward manner, and the disaster that causes for everyone around those who succumb.

That all hinges on the performance of Rooney Mara, who delivers as Emily in layers of subtlety.  She gave a disturbingly outré performance in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but her Emily is a quieter masterpiece.  Law plays Dr. Banks straight as an arrow, while Zeta-Jones’ casting is a bit of a tell in this case.  Even with its flaws, Side Effects will keep you thinking long after the credits roll, which is another virtue too rarely delivered by Hollywood.  Rumor has it that this will be Soderbergh’s last directorial effort as he wants to focus on producing.  If so, it’s a good valediction, but a shame nonetheless.

Side Effects is rated R for realistic violence, language, and nudity.  It’s not for children or for teens, not just because of the content warnings but also because they’re not likely to find this engaging. It’s aimed for thinking adults.