Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh, 2013)
How in the flying hell do I review Side Effects? Every problem I had with the film (and they are legion) comes after the Big Twist(TM) that appears about halfway through, and which has been remarkably unspoiled by the media—I may even be revealing too much by saying that there is, in fact, a Big Twist. The interesting thing is that before that happens, this is Soderbergh’s best movie since The Limey, his last great one. There is actually an attempt in the script to make the psychology more than pop-psych 101, and despite my low expectations for anything Soderbergh does these days, I found myself grudgingly impressed. Having Jude Law on board didn’t hurt, either, as the doctor spouting all that comforting-yet-incisive stuff. I didn’t even hate Channing Tatum in the first half of this movie, and that takes some doing. But then, well, Scott Z. Burns (who also collaborated with Soderbergh on Contagion) had to go and make a huge Gordian knot of everything. The problem with Gordian knots is that if you don’t tie them tight enough, they end up full of holes.
Plot: Law (The Wisdom of Crocodiles) plays Jonathan Banks, a psychiatrist who is called to the bedside of Emily Taylor (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo‘s Rooney Mara), a woman who just tried to commit suicide by driving her car into a wall the day after her husband Martin (Tatum, of Magic Mike) was released from prison after doing a stint for insider trading. This being the twenty-first century, Banks prescribes her antidepressants, but nothing seems to work for her, and after a consultation with her former psychiatrist, Victoria Siebert (Chicago‘s Catherine Zeta-Jones), and enticed by a fifty thousand dollar stipend from a drug company, he prescribes a new SSRI called Ablixa…with disastrous consequences. (This is not a spoiler, as the first shot of the film shows the consequences.) But, it turns out, and I am going to consider this not a spoiler since you may find yourself looking at your watch and wondering what Soderbergh’s going to do with the other hour of this movie, all of this is setup for what is really going on here…
…about which I cannot tell you a blessed thing, as above, as far as what’s actually going on. I will tell you that what’s actually going on quickly morphs into something bog-standard. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, when you’ve got a cast of this caliber. Fifteen years ago, Soderbergh might have been able to turn this into a stylistic treat, if one laden with empty calories, and that you probably would have forgotten a month or two after seeing it. But pre-Ocean’s Soderbergh and post-Ocean’s Soderbergh are two entirely different beasts (all the evidence you need can be had by contrasting 1999’s The Limey and 2011’s Haywire), and the current incarnation of Soderbergh makes this into exactly the sort of wet-cardboard mess one would expect. Still, the performances by the mains, especially Law and Mara, are credible enough to make it worth watching, even if you find yourself groaning rather regularly by the last twenty or so minutes of the movie. ** ½