Steven Soderbergh has some pretty impressive films under his belt but still seems to be a director who has never quite broken into Hollywood’s elite. He’s directed big name films such as Erin Brokovich and Ocean’s Eleven and won an Academy Award in 2000 for Traffic. However, those highs didn’t really last and his latter material, including films such as Magic Mike and Contagion, has had a much more lukewarm reception. Side Effects is (apparently) going to be Soderbergh’s final film having become disillusioned with Hollywood, and it’s another decent, if unspectacular, addition to his catalogue.
When her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is released from prison, Emily (Rooney Mara) falls into a deep depression. After trying to kill herself, she is prescribed a new drug by her therapist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). However, the drug has some unexpected and life altering side effects.
Side Effects suffers from a somewhat mundane start but soon picks up pace significantly, laying off the obvious subtexts of a ubiquitous and consumer-like pharmaceutical industry in favour of a more traditional thriller with strong central performances and a twist-laden plot. Because when Side Effects is good, it’s really good; it’s slick and never lets you settle long enough to feel comfortable. However, too often it stumbles and tries to be a little too clever for its own good. At the film’s climax, just as you should be fully engaged, it throws one too many twist at you and the whole thing becomes a bit of a mess. The motives of some of the characters, particularly Jonathan, are also questionable and some choices they make do belittle the story at times.
Performances are generally strong; Rooney Mara, in her first feature since 2011’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, gives a subtle but effective performance, perfectly balancing her character’s vulnerability with something else bubbling just under the surface. However, it’s Jude Law whose performance really shines through; the dutiful doctor at the start, becoming a much more complex character by the film’s conclusion. Catherine Zeta-Jones, on the other hand, is little more than laughable as Victoria Siebert, Emily’s former shrink. Her acting is matched in eye-rolling melodrama only by her obviously foreboding black clothing and make-up. She might as well be wearing a witch’s hat. As for Channing Tatum, his small amount of screen time makes a mockery of his equal billing in the film’s advertising.
If this does indeed prove to be Soderbergh’s last film, then it’s difficult to say he’s gone out with a bang. Side Effects has a Hitchcockian dark side to it that is its strongest element (although possibly not explored enough), but it never gets out of third gear for long enough to consistently be as good as it threatens to be.