A potent final dose of Soderbergh magic
Steven Soderbergh, exhausted from shooting twenty-seven features in twenty-four years, recently announced he’s retiring from moviemaking, and that new medical thriller Side Effects will be his last theatrical effort. I hope he’s pulling our leg. It’s been a joy to watch the unpredictable 50-year-old filmmaker hone his craft – bouncing from big Hollywood projects with star-heavy casts (Ocean’s Eleven, Out of Sight) to modestly budgeted indie experiments anchored by untraditional leads (Bubble, The Girlfriend Experience). Side Effects finds Soderbergh ending his career where he started it – using video to package sex, lies, and headshrinkers into provocative entertainment.
The screenplay, written by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion), asks a prescient question of our overly-medicated age – can pills, or the people who push them, be rightfully accused of murder. Jude Law stars as Dr. Jonathan Banks, a Manhattan psychiatrist who prescribes Ablixa to his suicidal patient Emily (Rooney Mara) to help her stay strong for a husband (Channing Tatum) recently sprung from jail. Emily initially shows mood improvement, but then commits a senseless act of violence while sleepwalking under the influence of the wonder drug. Now prosecutors must decide if she deserves to go to prison for a crime she did not consciously commit, or if blame can be shifted to a reckless shrink who valued drug company kickbacks over his patients’ mental health.
Side Effects is at its best during this first half debate, where the audience is asked to parse out the truth from morally ambiguous behavior. It’s fun to speculate whether Banks’ interest in Emily is strictly professional when he prioritizes sessions with the damaged beauty over spending time with his wife and stepson. Our bias that he was blinded by love only grows stronger when accusations resurface that he slept with a former patient. Law and Mara have excellent poker faces, and Soderbergh knows exactly when to duck out of their scenes together to keep audiences guessing their true feelings.
The filmmaker’s need to flip the script on the conventions of psychological thrillers, and deliver a culprit that isn’t a stereotypical mad doctor misogynist, leads to an improbable climax far removed from the initial promise of a hard-hitting pharmaceutical industry expose. Yet it’s a credit to Soderbergh’s skills as a storyteller and director of quality actors that he’s able to give the lurid conspiracy of his broadly drawn villains its own wonky appeal. Viewers who understand that what they’re consuming is strictly meant for recreational use, and doesn’t achieve the scope of a drug epic like Traffic, will likely be satisfied with the contact high they get off this better-than-average B-movie.
Side Effects, despite a few adverse reactions to the ending, is a Solid Recommend, and a reminder that Soderbergh can work miracles when treating familiar genre material with his intelligent cinematic approach. Here’s hoping the self-prescribed bed rest will cure the filmmaker of his fatigue, and inspire him to return to making more eclectic entertainment in the not-so-distant future.