Supposedly Side Effects is Steven Soderbergh’s last feature film before retirement. I think his retirement will last as long as Brett Favre’s first two retirements, if only because Side Effects, while a reasonably entertaining time at the movies, isn’t exactly worthy of his legacy.
I had been led to believe that the film, written by Scott Z. Burns, was an indictment of our over-medicated society, especially those commercials that advertise a pill for almost every malady, that end with a breathless recitation of the side effects, which can include everything from constipation to suicidal thoughts. Indeed, that is what the first third or so of the film is about, but then it takes a sharp turn that leads into a different film entirely, Soderbergh’s take on Diabolique.
Since I had no idea what to expect from the film, I won’t spoil it here. I can say that the film stars Rooney Mara, cleaned up after The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, as a young woman who is welcoming her husband (Channing Tatum) back to freedom after a four-year stint in prison for insider trading. But though she is happy to have him back, she suffers from depression, going so far as to drive her car full speed into parking garage wall. She has only a concussion, though, but a psychiatrist (Jude Law) is brought onto her case. He prescribes a variety of anti-depressants, but eventually, after consulting with her previous shrink (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he gives her a new drug, Ablixa. It has a nasty side effect of inducing sleepwalking.
The rest of the film, after the big moment at the end of act one, has Law becoming an amateur sleuth as he strives to clear his name. The twist is pretty well handled (gasps went up in the audience that I attended with), and the conclusion is full of turns that are pretty clever. But I couldn’t help but feel that the film was just an exercise in style. Soderbergh, who shoots his own camera under the pseudonym of Peter Andrews, has given the film a cozy feel, no doubt hearkening back to those commercials that have depressed people happy again after popping a pill. But the pace is very choppy and disorienting.
Law is the focus of the film, and I found the performance distracting. His motivation is at first to help Mara, and then to save himself, but many of his actions are inscrutable. The character is serving the script, instead of the other way around. Mara is much more interesting, and it’s good to see that he turn as Lisbeth Salander is not just a one-off. Her role requires some duplicitous actions, and she must fool the audience as well as others in the film. I’ll admit she fooled me.
Side Effects is really just an above-average TV movie, the kind of thing you might stop on while channel surfing. If this is Soderbergh’s last film, he didn’t exactly go out with a bang.
My grade for Side Effects: B-.