Side Effects, the latest and possibly one of the last film’s from fan-favorite director Steven Soderbergh uses the backdrop of Big Pharma to tell a very personal character story. Despite numerous well-known projects like Magic Mike, the Ocean’s Eleven trilogy, and Traffic, Soderbergh has managed to remain grounded in character-focused drama – amassing a diverse resume of films including a number of especially unique projects. While only a few Soderbergh movies have resulted in blockbuster box office profits, expectation is always high – and the director rarely disappoints his fans.
Overall, Soderbergh’s success has been consistent but subtle – relying on quality storytelling and captivating performances, not franchise branding, to bring audiences in. Does the director, who has flirted with the idea of retirement (or at least a filmmaking sabbatical), deliver another solid drama in Side Effects?
Thanks to potent performances from his leads, Jude Law and Rooney Mara, along with a cast that also includes Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones, the film presents a solid platform for Soderbergh’s filmmaker strengths. Side Effects is a convincing piece of moviemaking that carefully deconstructs the primary subject matter – only to reveal a much more intelligent idea at its core. Audiences may see twists and turns ahead of the protagonist, and a few fundamental plot lines are wrapped-up a bit too cleanly in the third act, but Side Effects still delivers a much richer story than the trailers indicate. On the surface, it could easily be dismissed as a generic psychological thriller but a number of the film’s better moments depend on surprises that have (thankfully) been left out of the marketing – meaning that moviegoers who see Side Effects will find a much more compelling progression than they might have originally thought.
Like most thrillers, the less you know about Soderbergh’s film the better but for anyone who is undecided, the basic story follows the troubles of Emily (Mara), a bartender who finds the man of her dreams, Martin Taylor (Tatum) – only to have her Cinderella-story upended by his unexpected arrest. Four years later, at the time of Martin’s release from prison, Emily struggles to readjust in their life together – coming under the care of psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law). However, after trying different mood-enhancing medications, which cause more problems than solutions, Banks agrees to prescribe Emily with a different drug therapy, Ablixa. The result? Life-changing “side effects” for everyone involved.
As indicated previously, the storyline (written by Scott Z. Burns) explores a lot of ground but a steady pace successfully builds-upon earlier scenes, allowing room for minor subtleties to help develop a rich overarching narrative. While moviegoers might get overwhelmed by some of the interconnected threads, not to mention a lot of quick-moving legalese, moment to moment Side Effects offers a number of fascinating turns. Unlike similar films, twists in the plot are thoroughly developed (almost to a fault) and exist to further the story – instead of relying on gimmicky shock value alone.
A number of big names (and frequent Soderbergh collaborators) are present in the cast but, like the plot, familiar faces only enhance the film’s success. Engaging actors sell a number of key story moments – narrative beats that, in less talented hands, could have otherwise crippled Side Effects‘ believability. Originally, Blake Lively was cast in the lead, and the actress has been regularly blamed as the reason Side Effects, formerly titled Bitter Pill, lost its original financiers. We’ll never know Lively’s take on Emily but Mara succeeds, again, as a standout – playing a very different character than her Oscar-nominated turn as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptation (among other memorable roles). Given that depression and prescription drug use are significant factors in the film, Emily showcases a complex range of emotions (including lack of emotion) and Mara never misses her mark.
Similarly, Law and Zeta-Jones are competent as Dr. Banks and Dr. Siebert, respectively. Law plays a larger role and, ultimately, delivers a sharp but recognizable performance – without really challenging the actor to step outside of his normal charming but intense routine. Still, Law successfully serves the story at hand – and is responsible for a number of genuinely sharp encounters. Even after the success of Magic Mike and 21 Jump Street, which both benefit from solid Channing Tatum turns, certain viewers remain skeptical of the actor. Fortunately, Martin Taylor is another sound entry for Tatum’s resume – one that will hopefully convince holdout moviegoers that he’s more than just a square-jawed former-stripper.
Engrossing personalities, along with that captivating storyline, hold-up throughout much of the film – only suffering from a slight falter near the finish line. Unfortunately, while the majority of the movie restrains from spoon-feeding its audience, a few final story beats are overly-complicated – as if Soderbergh felt the need to connect EVERY single dot. Side Effects toys with an interesting moral ambiguity – challenging main characters (and the audience) to adjust their worldview but, by the end, it’s all funneled into a relatively traditional lens of truth. The third act includes plenty of brilliant moments but a few of them are convoluted by minute details explaining questions most audiences never would have asked. For a film that’s as careful and subtle as Side Effects, the final half-hour is surprisingly forthright – leaving nothing to speculation.
Of course, a few excessively intricate character dynamics and on-the-nose scenes don’t detract from the overall success of Side Effects. There’s a lot to celebrate in the movie – great performers and a smart storyline, among other trademark Soderbergh staples. In spite of sterile doctor offices and stiff court room hallways, there’s a life to the director’s cinematography that elevates even the most familiar set-ups far-above normal genre thriller tropes. Side Effects isn’t just a clever film, there’s beauty in its execution – even if attempts to come full circle undercut some of the more interesting moral quandaries raised along the way.
If you’re still on the fence about Side Effects, check out the trailer below:
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Side Effects runs 106 minutes and is Rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language. Now playing in theaters.