‘Side Effects’ Review

Published 2 years ago by , Updated November 18th, 2014 at 3:42 am,

Side Effects Movie Rooney Mara Side Effects Review

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.

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.

Side Effects Movie Rooney Mara Channing Tatum Side Effects Review

Rooney Mara and Channing Tatum in ‘Side Effects’

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.

Side Effects Movie Jude Law Catherine Zeta Jones Side Effects Review

Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones in ‘Side Effects’

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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Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below.

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.

Side Effects runs 106 minutes and is Rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language. Now playing in theaters.

Our Rating:

4 out of 5

Follow Ben Kendrick on Twitter @benkendrick
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  1. Cool. I’ll probably check this out instead of Identity Thief, as RT’s rating score is a huge benafactor (not to mention this is Soderbergh’s final film).

  2. I will not be watching this because 3 times a row soderbergh films get a 80% plus om RT and i hate them. Contagion, haywire and MM

    • Contagion, Haywire, and Magic Mike were fine movies. People seriously seem to be mislead by SS’ trailers: Contagion looked like a thriller but turned out to be a more cautionary tale, Haywire had more of a brain than people may have expected, and Magic Mike was actually a nice character study rather than an utter appeal to energetic women.

      • Gotta say, I really didn’t like Contagion much at all. Not necessarily because of SS’s directing, that movie just…didn’t work for me at all for some reason. I forget why. This movie looks great, however, and I’d see it just for Rooney Mara alone.

        • I rather enjoyed Contagion. I think it displayed the concept of epidemics in a realistic sense and it was quite enjoyable to my tastes.

      • Definitely agree. I think it’s hard to successfully market his style so the marketing teams always give the audience something they’re expecting, only to see something else at the theater. Contagion > Haywire

        • Yeah i enjoyed Contagion, i didn’t love it or anything, but it was a solid movie overall, but i do understand certain people’s distaste for it because it was so wrongly advertised, as a result people disliked it for it not being the thing they expected, not because it was actually a bad film.

      • More brain? I disagree completely it was a poor written film, that misuses ewan mcgregor and made him a terrible villain.

        • It had some awkward twist and turns admittedly, but I thought it was more story less action which is why I liked it.

          • Haywire was brilliant.

            This sounds interesting too, thanks for the review, might give it a shot when it’s out over here.

  3. Wow, really? 4 stars? I saw this in a screening and thought it was terrible. Well, maybe the first half would be a 3.5 star movie, but the last half is like a 1 star movie… It really felt like a tv show where they needed to wrap it all up within time. It was like right after the twist was revealed, the main character had it all figured out how to resolve everything nice and neat… Kind of cheesy in my opinion…

    • We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. As I mentioned in the review, I do think the ending gets funneled into a sort of cliche conclusion but, overall, I thought that moment to moment it was pretty engaging and was working with a lot more than I had originally noticed.

      • @Ben

        Maybe I just had too high of expectations. Ever since The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, I guess I had high expectations because of Rooney Mara. But it was just kind of odd how someone so seemingly intelligent and cunning in the beginning becomes so gullible at the end, and someone who was so gullible in the beginning becomes so cunning and intelligent at the end… It just didn’t really seem consistent to me…

  4. suppose to take my ex to see this on Sunday… (did she finally pick a good movie)

  5. Soderbergh’s movies usually always work better, for me, on a second viewing. They don’t always hit their mark on the first viewing so… I think I’ll still give this one a chance in the theaters. :)

    • Same here… It’s always the same with Soderbergh and the Cohen Brother’s films. 1st watch I say oh that was ok, 2nd viewing is holy s**t that was brilliant.

  6. It felt like a silly Lifetime drama with a better budget. No one wants to admit it, but Soderbergh hasn’t made a great film in years. He’s become a smug, tedious filmmaker impressed with his own cleverness. Hopefully he will come back from his “retirement” refreshed and revitalized.

  7. So glad we finally hit the “grownup” level after hundreds of reviews and thousands of articles. [Wipes forehead in relief.]

    • *past Vic on the back* You guys hit a milestone today, congrats…

  8. Seen this earlier today and really enjoyed the hell out of it. It did indeed take some twist and turns that I wasn’t expecting. All the performances were great. Just a solid film. I give 4/5 as well.

  9. saw it and we both wish we had picked something else. oh well theres always next weekend…die hard or maybe identity thief

  10. I was debating on whether to see this or not and this review helped get me over the fence. And while we’re talking about Soderbergh films, what the hell was up with Haywire? Movie was weird as crap…and slow…

  11. This is a good movie with a good story plot. My only concern is that as a person who actually has GenerAlized anxiety disorder and panic attacks, I know all too well that they are very real and very frightenting. The director downplays these disorders almost saying that they aren’t real. They are very real, and this movie lacks empathy for those who actually have this horrible disorder, High periods of anxiety feels like a bunch of energy waves and like your drunk all the time when your not, it’s horrible. And anxiety pills do help. I just want people to know that they are real and people who have this disorder are not crazy like the girl and would never be like this fictional character and that this is just a movie and to critically think of this as just a movie and that it’s not real life. I already see comments like ” this movie blows doors open into the whole medical field as a scam” and etc etc. But it’s not a scam, I mean I’m sure some people are scanners but have empathy for those who actually have it,


    • Great, so not only do we have to deal with the nonsensical hashtags on facebook, but now on website comments too??? Wonderful…

      • Want a cuddle?

  13. I just saw this movie and well the end left me with 1 question which might be a little far fetched but go along with me for a second please:
    (I did forget the character names)
    The test that said the patient saw people that are not real. The dokter filled in those tests after his life was shattered and he also started showing signs of depression and seeking help. Maybe in all his confussion he filled in the test as if he was taking it. Since it the last scene where he seems to have gotten his life back everything seemed extra bright like it was the most beatifull summer day you could think off. It al seemed really dreamy. So perhaps he didn’t get his life back at all ? Just wondering if other people thought about this too.

  14. Soderbergh – the only man who continuously makes movies shot on RED cinema cameras look like they’re shot on jvc handy cams. Poor lighting, terrible grades, student style cinematography.

  15. I was a little disappointed with Side Effects actually – after a promising start with some really interesting characters (Law, Mara) I found after the stabbing it was like a different director had taken over. There seemed to be a lack of direction and the inability to choose one path rather than three or four.

    Jude Law played the role of psychiatrist, Dr Banks, very well and I think the way the film went, everyone was in his corner.

    It wasn’t awful, watchable at best but lacked directon and a lethal edge – won’t be picking up awards.

  16. Side Effects was a well written film.
    Most movies don’t even have a plot.
    I think perhaps, this film would’ve gotten more of a positive response if there was more sex and violence. Many were expecting something on the lines of Fatal Attraction and were disappointed. I admit I was too. However, I admired the plot twists that Side Effects had.

    This film wasn’t a masterpiece, but it was still an enjoyable movie.