Review: Side Effects

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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-.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

8 responses »

  1. I liked it a little more than you did, it reminded me of all those psychological thrillers made back in the 1940s when psychology was all the popular rage. There’s a limit to how good this kind of thing can really be, since they depend so much on bizarre plot twists, lurid subject matter, and, as you describe it, characters serving the script (which is true, I think, of all the main characters in this movie except Tatum’s – it’s not just Law’s). But this one is more clever than most.

    I’d have loved to see it with a pharmaceutical executive.

  2. I wrote a whole big thing for this and then lost it.
    So I’ll say:
    How does Steven Soderbergh continue to get to-no.
    How does Scott Z. Burns continue to get to write-no.
    Bad. So bad.

  3. This was a magnitude more plodding and nebulous than Contagion, which was bad. This was bad. So bad. Poorly written, lighted, acted with a dirty sheen on the lens and pedestrian, choppy editing (as Slim said) and the entire affair had the ‘not even good enough for HBO or CBS and belongs on Hallkmark) air to it.

  4. Ah, ok I just didn’t understand your first comment. I haven’t seem Side Effects yet but I actually really dug Contagion.

    I pretty think Soderbergh can do no wrong, though. Even his failures are interesting to me.

  5. This is such a strange and contradictory film of two sections. It turns from a sober, complex look at medical ethics and consequences to a dour version of ‘Wild Things’.

    But I understand why it was structured this way as it means the mystery of the second section is much more curious and interesting as opposed to the entire film being played in this format where it would’ve been much more obvious.

    But while it was very compelling, it probably wrapped things up too neatly in the finale and it’s also one of those films afterwards that the more you think about it, more issues crop up. But I still enjoyed it overall.

    Rating: B

  6. I enjoyed it, although I felt the film’s critique of the relationship between physicians and pharmaceutical industry was about as deep as a bottle cap. Anyone that’s been greeted by a physician wearing as much advertising on his person as an Indy 500 driver knows there’s a massive problem with the system.

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