Side Effects (2013)
Dir. Steven Soderbergh
3.5 out of 5
There’s a moment in Side Effects that almost feels like a betrayal, as if director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns are happily embracing conventionality after flouting it so openly in their previous collaborations: Emily (Rooney Mara), a melancholy young woman struggling with a resurgence of her depression after her husband (Channing Tatum) is released from jail, suffers unforeseen consequences from a new antidepressant pushed by her psychiatrist (Jude Law) as the camera conspicuously zooms in on the pernicious bottle of pills. However, it’s merely a red herring, a prelude to the ethical miasma that Law’s Dr. Jonathan Banks must confront when it comes time to assign blame for the chemical misfirings of Emily’s brain. It’s not exactly a subtle feint, but then Side Effects is not a subtle film. Frank about mental illness one minute, then frankly ludicrous the next, it’s a tonal rollercoaster that maintains an almost perverse watchability with its crazy twists and turns.
Side Effects is Soderbergh’s theatrical swan song (his Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra, bows on HBO later this spring), and that’s more than a bit disappointing. His recent string of moodily effective genre thrillers was a particularly interesting detour in a career full of them. It's a great testament to his skill as a director; all the instincts on display in sex, lies, and videotape - voyeuristic camera placement, powerful close-ups, punky disregard for narrative convention - resurface here. The performances are top-notch as well, from Tatum's casually hurtful white-collar criminal to Mara's lost lamb to Law's increasingly deluded practitioner. Along with Catherine Zeta-Jones as one of Banks' psychiatric colleagues, it's a small, talented ensemble that works hard to sell some of the film's more questionable elements.
But though a master stylist like Soderbergh can elevate iffy material - remember what he made of the career ennui of assorted hunks and lawwwwbreakers in Magic Mike - he can’t completely salvage it. As Burns' script sinks further and further into histrionic melodrama, it becomes every bit as campy as its the anti-drug PSA it was threatening to be. That's not entirely a bad thing. Side Effects works as an entertaining, elaborately-plotted (if often problematic) slice of paranoia, even if it's not the most accurate representation of, well, anything. (You should definitely check any complaints about the psychological disorders in Silver Linings Playbook at the door if you hope to enjoy this one.) Ironic for a movie that relies on the de-stigmatization of mental illness and psychiatric treatments to provide its subject matter, Side Effects is - to borrow outdated terminology - certifiably insane, and proud of it.