First the bad news. Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh says Side Effects is the last film he plans to direct (up next, it’s all painting, writing, theater and long-form TV). The good news is it’s a hell of a thriller, twisty, terrific and packed with surprises you don’t see coming. Soderbergh, who handles camera and editing on his films, has a rare gift for taking a familiar genre and filling it with provocations about how we screw up our lives. Just think of sex, lies & videotape, Out of Sight, Erin Brockovich, Traffic, right up to Magic Mike. The gray areas are where shit happens, and Soderbergh is there taking full measure.
Side Effects is Soderbergh in full, flinty vigor. It’s anything but a formula murder mystery. Working from a script by Scott Z. Burns, a collaborator on The Informant! and Contagion, Soderbergh delivers ticking-bomb suspense laced with psychological acuity about a world where mood-altering meds are as disturbingly prevalent as social media.
And Soderbergh lucks out with actors who stay keenly attuned to his wicked vision. There’s no turning away from the seductively enigmatic Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) as she reels us into the anxieties of Emily Taylor. Her husband, Martin (a stellar Channing Tatum), is just out of prison. He did four years for insider trading. It’s a shock to Emily’s system. Her plush life with Martin is now a one-bedroom apartment unfashionably uptown and a grind of a job at a Manhattan ad agency.
No sooner is Martin home than Emily is driving her car into a garage wall. The suicide attempt brings in Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a shrink with a ready prescription pad to treat the ills of Prozac nation. His drug of choice, a fictional one, is called Ablixa, with a website heralding its dubious virtues. In short order, Emily is perking up. In bed, this depressed wife mounts her husband like a bitch in heat. “Whoever makes this drug is going to be very rich,” says Martin.
Then come the side effects. One includes murder. Shocked? Don’t be. Dr. Sasha Bardey, a psychiatrist who worked at Bellevue, co-produced the movie. Headlines are still being made about side effects that move past nausea and headaches into violence. Soderbergh pokes satirical fun at a Manhattan where you can’t run into anyone who’s not on antidepressants. But his film is deadly business.
To avoid spoilers, I won’t go further into plot. But you can’t deny the heat generated by this cast. Law is sensationally good as a physician who can hand out beta blockers to ease tension in his wife (Vinessa Shaw), but can’t heal himself when he gets in over his head. And Catherine Zeta-Jones, as the shrink Emily bonded with before Dr. Banks, is . . . well, let’s start with dynamite. Soderbergh has sent out Side Effects with a memorable sting in its tail. There is a side effect to this movie, but it’s one that I think most film junkies can live with: You can’t get it out of your head.