Steven Soderbergh’s alleged “last movie” Side Effects is one half murder mystery and another half docudrama about the pharmaceutical industry. It only truly excels at being one of these, but the film is interesting nonetheless from start to finish.
Emily Taylor, an often distraught wife played by Rooney Mara, greets her hubby (played by Channing Tatum) after he’s been incarcerated for a lengthy prison term. Life is seemingly back to normal, but Emily fades in and out as she loses touch of reality. She resorts to pills – many of them – to keep herself stabilized.
All of a sudden, someone prominent to Side Effects’ story is rubbed out and all eyes are on Emily. Did these prescriptions numb her to a point of a sleep walking psychosis? Is she to blame for taking the pills or should Dr. Jonathan Banks (played by Jude Law) take some – or all – of the heat?
The script is penned by Steve Z. Burns who also wrote 2011’s frighteningly authentic Contagion (also directed by Soderbergh) and I’m starting to catch similarities in his writing. Both Soderbergh and Burns are excellent at what they do and they don’t shy away from taking risks with their craft. However, when Burns attempts to satirize, his writing becomes heavy-handed.
During the murder mystery half of Side Effects, Burns is very good at building suspense and making character motivations take twists and turns that feel normal in their backstabbing ways.
So, when I hear dialogue that sounds stilted in both the writing and in the actors’ delivery when Burns is shining a light on the shadiness that lies within pharmaceuticals with dialogue that’s akin to, “I don’t understand. The commercials told me that these pills would make me feel better when, in fact, they’re making me feel worse”, I close my eyes and try to convince myself that this talented screenwriter didn’t abandon subtly for good.
Side Effects is a prime opportunity for the small leading cast to bite into juicy roles. Everyone delivers.
Dr. Banks’ fascination with Emily’s either fraudulent or legit diagnosis is easy to get lost in. His thought process tightrope walks between actual detective work and conspiracy theorist jibber-jabber. He’s a character who has so much at stake, so he’s determined to make ends meet and uncover the truth. Law is great to watch and to follow. It may be hard to see past that familiar appearance he has, but he’s doing his damnedest to make you forget who he is.
Mara is equally enthralling in this troubled role and constantly makes us question if she’s playing a great underdog character or a brilliant saboteur. Catherine Zeta-Jones shows up as a strict doctor who has an understanding for Emily as well as a smattering of sultriness to her forte. Tatum is given the least screen time but makes a lasting impression – although he doesn’t have the most convincing dialogue amongst the actors.
Soderbergh tends to dabble with independent filmmaking with an “artsier” aesthetic to it – most notably with the editing and with the cinematography. With more mainstream fare, moviegoers have been seeing the director find a balance between these “artsier” decisions and ones that are more recognizable to a commercial audience.
There aren’t many of those shots in Side Effects that make you question the director’s integrity, but the ones that do work add that edge that makes Soderbergh’s projects stand out as visually arresting. That fly-on-the-wall feel adds an extra hiddenness to secret discussions between Law and some supporting cast drug reps and lawyers.
If this is Soderbergh’s “last film”, it’s a good film to go out on. It may not be perfect, but it incorporates everything the filmmaker appreciates about a story worth telling and the way he intends to tell it. It reminds us he’s a one-of-a-kind who churns out respectable results with Steve Z. Burns’ scripts. I’m hoping Burns can go through a similar learning process Soderbergh has been doing for close to a decade.