Sometimes life doesn’t work out the way it’s supposed to. In Side Effects, a would-be taut psychological thriller from director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic), Emily (Rooney Mara), a seemingly nice girl with a history of depression, should be exalted that her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is returning home after a four-year prison sentence for financial crimes.
If only she could allow herself to be happy. In this thought-provoking but uneven drama, Emily, unable to deal with the stress of Martin back home and worried that she’ll lose everything once again, becomes suicidal.
After a failed attempt at crashing her car into a wall she meets Dr. Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes a series of anti-depressants, each with side effects that impact her day-to-day functionality. When one drug stops working, she moves on to a stronger one. Whether Dr. Banks has Emily’s best interests at heart or is more interested in the pharmaceutical company’s money for distributing experimental drugs is debatable.
It’s here that Scott Z. Burns’ script is most interesting, as it probes questions of whether mental health patients are too dependent on prescription medication and whether certain medications are too dangerous. It also asks if prescription medication can be responsible for a crime, and if so, in what circumstances and who’s guilty? The person who committed the crime – even if they’re not in a clear frame of mind – or the doctor who prescribed the medication?
As long as Soderbergh stays on this path, the movie is fascinating. But the inclusion of Emily’s old shrink Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is not as innocuous as it might seem, and sure enough, Dr. Siebert is the catalyst for a series of confounding plot twists. Rather than be a biting commentary on the state of mental-health medication, Side Effects goes bonkers beyond that with lies, betrayals and financial missteps that are difficult to believe. We’re supposed to be swept up in the drama, but as soon as the focus shifts from Emily to Dr. Banks, the film feels like it’s trying too hard when it’s really just losing its way.
This is not Law’s fault, mind you. His character is confused, so it stands to reason that he’d be confused in playing Dr. Banks, and thankfully his charisma and charming accent allow him to be a likable protagonist.
As for Mara, an Oscar nominee for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, she’s convincing at the outset as a lowly victim. But Emily’s transition is so drastic that it’s hard to believe. If anything, Mara is so good in the beginning that it’s hard to imagine the end as a possibility. This is odd to write, but it’s true: She needed to be less convincing early so she could be more convincing late.
Soderbergh has said this is his last feature film and that he’ll now work only in theater and television. He’s earned that right. Although it’s doubtful this is truly the last feature he’ll direct, his consistency has been shoddy of late, so perhaps some time away will do him good.
Side Effects will remind some of Sir Walter Scott’s famous line, “Oh what a tangled web we weave / When first we practice to deceive.” This applies to both the characters and Soderbergh, who twists and twists the resolution to the point where it clearly doesn’t know where or how to end. (The latter two Ocean’s movies suffered a similar flaw.)
You’ll be compelled by much of it, though, and solid performances by a stellar cast are a certain highlight. But if you leave with a feeling of “what?” don’t be surprised.
Any movie that requires more than one viewing to understand – but doesn’t offer enough to make you want to come back – should be skipped in the first place.
SIDE EFFECTS (2) Directed by Steven Soderbergh • Starring Channing Tatum, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Rooney Mara • Rated R • 105 min •At Century Cinemas Del Monte, Maya Cinemas, Northridge Cinemas, Lighthouse Cinemas.