Soderbergh’s prescription for a thriller
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, February 8, 2013
Like a gel cap in a sip of orange juice, the psycho-pharmacological thriller “Side Effects” goes down easily, even if its long-term impact turns out to be barely discernible.
A medical thriller wrapped around a social-issue picture suspended within a potboiler, Steven Soderbergh’s cautionary drama glides along at a brisk clip, preferring perfunctory whiffs of ideas rather than deep dives.
If, as Soderbergh has announced, “Side Effects” is his final theatrical feature film, it presents an oddly thin, anticlimactic punctuation point to one of Hollywood’s most protean, off-handedly daring filmographies.
Which isn’t to say “Side Effects” isn’t well made: From the swooping crane shot that opens the film to the moment when the camera settles on a trail of bloody footprints leading through a Manhattan apartment, the audience’s interest is suitably piqued, the atmosphere of urbane dread firmly established.
The action picks up three months earlier, when Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) reunites with her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), who’s been away.
When Emily makes the acquaintance of a psychiatrist named Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), their relationship takes center stage of “Side Effects,” which initially promises to be for Big Pharma what Soderbergh’s “Traffic” was for the War on Drugs.
Indeed, there are some tartly observant sequences in “Side Effects” that neatly outline the pernicious daisy chain between drug marketers, physicians and desperate patients who are often bribed into study cohorts with the promise of free medication. The film, written by Scott Z. Burns, also cannily portrays the epidemic of over-prescribing currently at play in America, from friends casually recommending antidepressants to a job candidate popping a beta blocker before a big interview.
But “Side Effects” doesn’t dwell in the territory of social commentary, instead veering dramatically into the murder mystery behind those bloody footprints. Soderbergh handles the switching of gears with characteristic smoothness, even if the result is a movie composed of one part “Thank You for Smoking,” one part “The Snake Pit,” one part “Spellbound” and a dash of “Basic Instinct” for titillating good measure.
Soderbergh is too confident a filmmaker to overdo any of these references; rather he deploys his reliable late-career signature that might be called the style-of-no-style, never underlining, italicizing or over-decorating what is essentially a modest, if well-crafted, diversion. Soderbergh, who has been directing movies for almost four decades, is too competent at this point to make a film that isn’t compulsively watchable despite its most schematic, superficial elements.
And he gets a mighty assist from Mara, who anchors “Side Effects” with what is less a performance than an emanation from a supremely self-possessed obelisk. With her porcelain skin, steady gaze and un-inflected voice, Mara is an eerily transfixing screen presence, providing lucid, utterly beguiling ballast even when things go all plotty and wobbly.
If “Side Effects” does prove to be Soderbergh’s swan song, that’s a shame: Mara is just the kind of cool, opaque-yet-transparent leading lady with whom he could embark on the next chapter of a masterfully versatile career.
Contains sexuality, nudity, violence and profanity.