PLOT: A vulnerable young woman (Mara) is given antidepressants by her doctor (Law) with fatal consequences.
WHO'S IT FOR? If you liked Contagion, you'll probably enjoy this one as well. However, anybody who needs at least a half hour of Channing Tatum onscreen time might find Side Effects to be a little disappointing.
Before Steven Soderbergh hangs his bald head cap on the mantle of movie-making and moves on to his celebrity art collage and tweeting about the massive menu at The Cheesecake Factory, he leaves moviegoers with Side Effects, a strong dosage of the type of craftiness that makes his filmmaking a drug itself. The Soderbergh Drug can be applied to any script, to any actor, and because it's such a guaranteed mix, it always does the job.
Here, Soderbergh toys with a story that has sexy keywords like "deception," "seduction," and "Xanax." From the very beginning, Side Effects abstains from his recently seen cold opens, and instead lingers a skyline camera into an apartment, where "deception" is taking place. From this off-putting starting point, the film takes off in as a story of manipulation, in the arena of antidepressants. Like Soderbergh's previous Contagion, Side Effects becomes a driving thriller that gets its lingering hook from its cynicism, which forces the audience to question a massive machine that can easily be corrupted, or in this case, outsmarted. Non-chronological, with shifting character focus and a whole lot of "deception" and "seduction" by prescriptions, Side Effects is a glowing puzzle that provides a large ugly picture of a heavily medicated society.
Doubling as a potent artistic statement and a gripping mystery, Side Effects is the story of a girl who cried depression, as played with real performance by The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara. Without divulging how the story takes this character, Mara plays the character with excellent duality, a symbol of the lie of medicine that Soderbergh is trying to purport with his co-writer Scott Z. Burns (who also penned Contagion). In cheeky font-playing terms, it is a delight of difficulty to discern when Mara is acting, or when she is acting.
The focus of Side Effects then changes from Mara's dangerous depressive to that of her doctor, Jonathan Banks. Law continues a streak of interesting supporting on-screen roles (Karenin in Anna Karenina, Alan in Contagion) with this character, and he shows to be strong enough to take on center stage once again. As his character is caught up in aforementioned manipulation game, Law keeps the film's twist playful, and the whole of it never stops. Most of all, this is one performance in which the audience can see the gears turning in his head, especially in exciting scenes in which dialogue and character are the film's lone assets.
Side Effects is a game of competitive smarts that constantly shifts, and certainly earns the secrecy it desires with its coy storytelling. Sans its clunky final twist, this is a film that maintains its speed in every turn (though I admit Side Effects felt slow the first time I saw it). Whether one wants to call it modern Hitchcock, or just a solid drama for attentive adults, Side Effects has a vigor that is sexy all on its own.
While Side Effects stands on its own as film that is simply quite good, it is difficult to not keep Soderbergh's apparent retirement from filmmaking in mind when stewing over it. While the director has recently expressed unhappiness with the scene of cinematic storytelling, (especially with the difficulty in keeping vagueness in a movie like Contagion), here on display is the work of a filmmaker with inherent talent as delivered with a type of removed craftiness which hints that even more greatness is to be seen in film projects he truly cares about.
The success of Soderbergh's possible last film is a painful reminder of the potential that is being wasted for a world of movies that will sorely lack his unique presence. Side Effects shows why it will be all the more difficult to quit Soderbergh cold turkey, especially because his stuff gets you so hiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10