Unlike a lot of moviegoers, I like being surprised. Expecting one thing in a movie and getting another is one of life’s greatest pleasures, especially when you’ve seen as many as the average movie nerd probably has.
Directed by: Steven Soderbergh
Written by: Scott C. Burns
Starring: Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law
Director Steven Soderbergh is one of the best for providing a jolt of the unexpected. The trailers for his films give you what you think you want, but once you’re in the theater all bets are off. I went to “Magic Mike” expecting “Showgirls” with dudes, but instead I got a nuanced exploration of money in American culture and the best performance of both Channing Tatum’s and Matthew McConaughey’s respective careers. I went to “Haywire” planning on a throwaway action movie meant to be forgotten, but instead I got Gina Carano, an MMA-fighter/muse who turned the movie into a one-woman show about the privatisation of clandestine work. That playful nature with audience expectation, that weird thrill and sense of unease that comes with not knowing what’s going to come next, is where Soderbergh shines.
He attempts the same thing in “Side Effects,” his new thriller I assumed was going to be a tedious message movie about the pharmaceutical industry. And there is some of that, as least in the first act, but about halfway through the plot, true to Soderbergh form, it careens off to territory that is fascinating and troubling- though not always expertly mapped.
We begin with Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a woman dealing with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) in minimum security prison for insider trading, the loss of their entire fortune in the wake of his arrest, and what appears to be a recurring case of generic clinical depression. After her husband gets out of prison (apparently intending to go right back to insider trading to regain their old lifestyle) Emily attempts suicide and falls into the hands of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who begins to prescribe her a new drug to treat her illness.
Of course, nothing is what it seems, from Martin’s dubious line of work, to Emily’s mental illness, to Dr. Banks, who seems well-intentioned but distracted- he’s so busy writing prescriptions and assisting with drug trials he seems relatively uninterested in how to change the circumstances which caused Emily to end up in his care. But after the pill Emily is taking appears to cause a tragedy followed by a public scandal, “Side Effects” becomes a very different movie.
Tatum has become a bit of muse in his own right for Soderbergh, and he shines in a small role as the feckless, criminally-minded Martin, but it’s Mara who steals every shot as Emily, shifting seamlessly between vulnerable to obtuse to almost predatory in her neediness. Playing a crazy lady always threatens to veer into Sally Field or Glenn Close-style hysterics, but Mara treads the line deftly, making her silences just as important as when she speaks. Law’s performance is a bit more perfunctory as the increasingly desperate Dr. Banks- he’s a bit overly serious and workmanlike in his line delivery. And speaking of Glenn Close-style hysterics, Catherine Zeta-Jones stops by as a positively carnivorous psychiatrist, using her smoky voice to great effect. Never has the phrase “I think I have some pill samples” been so full of ominous intent.
What doesn’t work in “Side Effects” is that once the big reveal is, you know, revealed, it proves far too ridiculous to fit with the rest of the tone of the movie. It is indeed a criticism of the pharmaceutical industry and it’s enabler in psychiatrists who simply prescribe pills to “fix” a depressed person but don’t bother to actually treat them in a proactive way. That’s a story that needs to be told (I say this as a loyal and satisfied customer of an MAOI-inhibitor myself), but when the other shoe drops the story has drifted too far from the original point to actually say anything meaningful.
Nevertheless, the end is pretty damn satisfying; an ironic, grim punchline that fits the mood of Soderbergh’s trademark blue-filtered camera and unfriendly grey light. And once again I walked out with a boost of energy that comes from seeing something I can’t quite describe or pigeonhole into a genre. “Side Effects” isn’t perfect by a long shot, but it’s a dirty little bait-and-switch. And that’s just the way I like it.