Side Effects (Review)

SIDE EFFECTS (2/08/13; Thriller)
Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Vinessa Shaw
SCR: Scott Z. Burns
DIR: Steven Soderbergh
MPAA: R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language.
1 hour 46 mins
Open Road Films

“Emily and Martin are a successful New York couple whose world unravels when a new drug prescribed by Emily’s psychiatrist – intended to treat anxiety – has unexpected side effects.”

That’s the official description of this twisty thriller, which at times flirts with being everything from an indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, a character study about clinical depression, and a drop dead stunner built around an unreliable narration. Also worth noting: it’s a completely different viewing experience the second time around.

As we begin, the information comes fast and furious. Martin (Channing Tatum) is in white collar prison for insider trading. Wife Emily (Rooney Mara) got to watch him get arrested on their wedding day and has been struggling since. Oh, and then there’s that opening image, the one with the bloody footprints and apartment crime scene.

Here’s what I can tell you: with the exception of Zeta-Jones’ slightly vampy, mostly campy psychiatrist, the acting across the board is superb.

Rooney Mara, last seen in the incredibly difficult role of Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s English language remake of The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, casts a spell over this film, even when she is offscreen. Her Emily is an equally-difficult role, partially because of the depths the character sinks to, and partially – well I can’t tell you.

Jude Law is equally commanding as the Dr. Jonathan Banks, the psychiatrist who comes to care for Emily after an early suicide attempt. The less said about him the better as well, and I’ll tell you why. The movie – the second collaboration between screenwriter Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh – does a crafty thing about halfway in.

Most thrillers will hide information from an audience until such time it’s best to reveal it for maximum effect. But Side Effects goes one step further by introducing seemingly important information through hearsay. It’s a deliciously evil trick that makes us reconsider everything we know about a particular character. And when we begin to wonder if these crazy stories are true, we begin to question who we should trust.

Steven Soderbergh has long proven to be one of our contemporary masters. If only a couple of his movies are truly great (Out of Sight, Traffic, Sex Lies and Videotape), Soderbergh has earned his reputation through a prolific resume of ambitious films crossing numerous genres. Even his popcorn flicks have a little something extra in the tank.

Alas, he has announced he will no longer direct films for the big screen. I wonder if that means he will work exclusively in television. I cannot imagine he will hang it up entirely, but if it’s a while before Soderbergh’s name graces the opening credits of a film, Side Effects is a mighty fine one to go out on.

If I didn’t make it clear before, Side Effects is a film best experienced with very little knowledge going in. My advice: steer clear of spoilers and chatty friends. To the marketing team’s credit, the movie’s trailer – long the bane of any contemporary moviegoers existence – hides as much as it reveals. And in this ADHD-addled media landscape, that’s saying something.

— DENNIS WILLIS

Author: Dennis Willis

Dennis Willis is an award-winning producer, TV host, producer, director, editor (he preferred Avid until a torrid affair with Adobe Premiere, and the rest is history), author and film critic (print and radio). Dennis produced and hosted the TV programs Reel Life, FilmTrip, Soundwaves (1983-2008) and produces the annual Soundwaves Xmas program. He is currently the film critic on KGO Radio in San Francisco, and a member of both the San Francisco Film Critics Circle and the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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