It’s always hard to say goodbye, especially to the ones you love, and I really, really don’t want to say goodbye to Steven Soderbergh.
I’m going to try my hardest to avoid spoilers, but discussion of what the film does and how Soderbergh approaches it will require potentially dipping into information that some might consider spoiler territory.
The film, at first, centers on Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young wife and graphic designer who eagerly greets her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), after he’s spent the last four years in jail for insider trading. The emotional stress of having her fairy tale life shattered by her husband’s incarceration, however, has taken its toll and she finds herself barely able to function due to depression. After a failed suicide attempt lands her in the hospital, she goes under the psychiatric care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).
Dr. Banks’ first prescribed medicines are roundly ineffective, but after hearing about a new drug on the market from Emily’s previous shrink, Dr. Seibert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he puts her on Ablixa. It at first seems to be a miracle drug, allowing the haze and fog to lift from Emily’s life as she and Martin begin to put the pieces back together. However, the sleepwalking side effect soon goes from innocuous to deadly when, while sleepwalking, Emily commits a murder, only to awaken with seemingly no memory or knowledge of what she’d done.
It’s here the film takes an interesting turn, shifting focus and making the story more about Banks’ tireless search for the truth (the viability of his practice and reputation has been put at serious risk due to his involvement with Emily and her case) as he slowly unravels the threads that make up the film’s increasingly complex web of lies, deception and manipulation.
It’s a bit of a pleasant surprise seeing the film take such a turn, especially as the trailers for this thing made it seem like far too much had been revealed. Thankfully, that’s far from the case and the twists, while somewhat obvious in hindsight, are deftly handled in a way that kept me engrossed throughout.
Truth be told, the story and script as a whole are really kind of trashy and soap opera-esque in their construction, but Sodebergh’s execution elevates the proceedings to a level that is perhaps better than the material might actually deserve.
And that’s what sort of soothes the sting of having a somewhat insubstantial film be Soderbergh’s last hurrah. It might be rather light fare, but he’s at least showing the rest of us how to take even the most traditional of concepts and scripts and turning it into something that can still feel engaging and worthwhile.
Much of this is due to the performances by Law and Mara. Law might have faded from the heartthrob headlines in the last several years, but he’s still putting out consistently solid work and “Side Effects” is no exception. He brings a sense of urgency and creeping desperation to the proceedings without ever going over-the-top. It’s actually a somewhat restrained performance, especially compared to what normally we might get from a film of this sort, and for that I’m thankful.
Mara is kind of given less and less to do over the course of the film as the focus shifts from Emily to Banks, but she works with what’s asked of her. It’s difficult to say much more without spoiling things too much, but let’s say there’s more to Emily than meets the eye and Mara does a good job of never giving away too much until its time.
This is a solid film. It’s shot well (Soderbergh might be the master at crafting a visual palette that is stylish yet subtle) and it’s one of the more efficient thrillers I’ve seen in a while. The film wastes not a moment getting things running yet Soderbergh still manages to set up these characters and their plight in almost record time. I guess I was just hoping we’d get another “Out of Sight” or “Traffic” or “Solaris” or heck even another slick, stylish romp like “Ocean’s 12.” (Yes, “Ocean’s 12,” not “11” because ignore the haters, it’s the best of the three. Yes. The best. Deal with it.)
Still, if this is to be Soderbergh’s final bow, there are worse notes to go out on. Here’s hoping he changes his mind, though.