Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Ann Dowd, Polly Draper, David Costabile, Mamie Gummer
Running Time: 106 min.
★★★ (out of ★★★★)
The character Rooney Mara plays in Side Effects is so interesting and complex it's easy to imagine a wide variety of films across different genres that her protagonist could have been the centerpiece of. It just so happens that the one Steven Soderbergh decided to make is a 90's-style psychological thriller. And who would have guessed? He's really good at it. Of course, it's not that much of a surprise. He's good at most things, often impossible to pigeonhole into any specific genre. I had originally intended to label this, his supposed send-off as a feature director, as "smart" or "clever" until further reflection convinced me the story itself is kind of prepostruous. Almost spectacularly so, with twists and turns so far-fetched and convoluted they would never hold up in any cinematic court of law, much less a real one. And yet, Soderbergh brings an artistry to the material that makes it seem incredibly intelligent. It's all in the "how" and by the end I was almost howling with laughter at the events that went down, which, for a change, is actually meant as a sincere compliment.
Mara is Emily Taylor, whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has just recently been released from prison after serving a four year sentence for insider trading. His return and Emily's struggles to adjust to a less opulent lifestyle causes her depression to resurface when she drives her car head-on into a parking garage wall in an apparent suicide attempt. Psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) is put in charge of her care, prescribing her a variety of anti-depressants while consulting with her former therapist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) regarding her history and the best approach to treatment. Seemingly an emotional wreck on meds or off, Emily tries a new experimental drug called Ablixa, which allows her to function normally, aside from one dangerous side effect. This causes another incident where the intended victim this time the isn't herself, causing a controversial ethical and legal dilemma. Then twists and turns come at full force.
Initially the film moves at a deliberate, methodical pace that practically mirrors the mood of the depressed, withdrawn Emily. Until it doesn't. For a while the movie itself also seems to be on meds as the first hour plays as almost a dream, giving us as good a glimpse as any into what it must be like to be utterly and hopeless to the point of being barely functional. While depression is usually defined as the inability to construct a future, for a while we wonder if this girl's even able to construct a present. She also seems gifted with the most understanding mother-in-law (Ann Dowd) and boss (Polly Draper) on the planet. Then the big event happens and I'll be careful not reveal too much other than a crime is committed that has huge ramifications for every character and calls into question just how responsible a doctor should be held over their patient's actions, as well as how responsible an actual patient is for their own behavior while under the heavy influence of prescription medication. As quickly as screenwriter Scott Z. Burns brings up these issues, he ditches them in favor of going a route that's a bit sillier, but still expertly crafted. And the transition getting there is seamless. The twists and turns aren't exactly shocking when you think back on them and a great deal of what happens stretches credibility even for a legal potboiler, but everything is just too well executed and performed for the viewer not to be totally sucked in.
When it becomes apparent where everything's going, you start to realize how tricky the scenes are to perform and that none of it would have succeeded without Mara's sad, almost other worldly performance that evolves into something else entirely in the film's second half. Some actresses just have that"it" factor. An indescribable presence that can't be described in any way other than an inability for audiences to take their eyes off them whenever they're on screen. She's got it and is able to convey so much with just her face that dialogue hardly even seems necessary during the opening hour. Only when the final credits roll do you realize just how much she had to do without looking like she was doing anything at all and how the original casting choice of Blake Lively (who dropped out before filming) probably wouldn't have fit what Soderbergh was going for because of her accessibility and openness as a movie star type. Mara is much harder to read and far less accessible as an actress, which only serves to help make her more captivating than ever here.
For Law and Zeta-Jones this represents their highest profile roles in some time, with the former basically owning the movie's second half as lead when the focus shifts to Dr. Banks, while Jones chews up and relishes what might be the most over-the-top, certifiably insane part the usually buttoned-up actress has had yet. Tatum has by far the smallest and briefest role, but following last year's discovery that he's actually a good actor, the floodgates have opened in terms of the types of roles he can play. Despite limited screen time, he's believable in this one.
While the debate's already underway as to Soderbergh's best film (Contagion gets my vote), there's little doubt this is easily his most fun. He has a very distinctive visual style that really seems to have come into its own in his last few releases and there's mistaking that this very much bares his mark, with a script that matches his cool, clinical aesthetic perhaps more than any of his previous efforts. The direction definitely outweighs the script, as it's easy to imagine a low-rent version of this that would go straight to video on demand or play on cable late at night if it were put in the hands of a less accomplished filmmaker. It takes real skill to take material that treads similar territory as cheesy thrillers like Jade or Wild Things and turn it into high art but he pulls it off with style to spare. And without Mara in the lead I'm not sure any of it would have been possible, as she conclusively puts to bed any doubts she's the real deal. If Side Effects really is Soderbergh's last feature before retiring (which I don't buy for a second by the way), it'll be hard for anyone to say it wasn't a fun way to go out.