With Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vinessa Shaw. Written by Scott Z. Burns. Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language. 106 minutes.
Okay, other than setting up the premise there’s not much a film reviewer can or should say about the plot of SIDE EFFECTS. This is one of those movies that’s all about the twists and turns of the plot, and if you know what’s coming, there’s really no reason to see it. Undoubtedly, some reviews will give major plot points away and just as likely some of the spoiler-phobic crowd will claim any detail is a too much. This review will play fair, but if you’re someone who objected to reviews of “Lincoln” which pointed out that he was assassinated, you should probably move along.
Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) is finishing up a prison term for insider trading and his loyal wife Emily (Rooney Mara) has been faithfully visiting, awaiting the day of his release. They had to give up a plush life in Greenwich, Connecticut for a none-too-shabby apartment in Manhattan where Emily works for a graphic design studio. Emily suffers from depression and shortly after Martin’s release, she is hospitalized after what seems to be a suicide attempt.
She comes under the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who tries different medications to treat the depression, but none seem to be effective. After meeting with Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who had been Emily’s therapist in Connecticut, Banks prescribes a new (and fictional) medication called Ablixa. Still, she suffers side effects… and then things get complicated.
That’s all you’ll get on plot except that this is a story that starts as a way medical professionals are used by – and use – the pharmaceutical industry and turns into a paranoid thriller. Things aren’t what they seem and there are several twists to the plot before it reaches the fade out you’ve been expecting all along even if you haven’t been quite sure how they’ll get there. It’s not dull, but neither is it groundbreaking. Perhaps the problem is that the cool and analytical Soderbergh (reportedly making his last feature film, at least for a while) isn’t the ideal director for this sort of material. This needed someone like Alfred Hitchcock or Brian DePalma, who could rev things up to a fever pitch when needed.
Instead, as we watch one character’s life unravel as the movie turns into a thriller, we keep that same cool distance as we did when watching Dr. Banks agree to a nice payday for lending his name to the clinical study of a new anti-depressant. We stick around to see how it all works out, and admire the cleverness of the plot, but we have nothing emotionally invested in the outcome. There’s no sense of horror or of satisfaction as the various revelations occur.
Although the four leads are equally billed, the film is really carried by Mara and Law. She convincingly walks around in a daze, losing her grip on reality while trying to reclaim her life. When her character is described by someone else as a “wounded bird,” it fits. Law is all confidence and positive attitude as Dr. Banks. He plays by the rules but doesn’t question the rules themselves, so when things go awry, he’s at a loss. He turns out to be a bit broken himself, which is why these may be the two performances that stick out.
“Side Effects” is the sort of movie that in other hands could have either gone over-the-top or else had enough heat and sizzle to be a truly memorable thriller. Soderbergh’s style, well-suited to movies like “Traffic” and “Contagion,” works less well here, leaving viewers diverted and possibly entertained, but never fully engaged.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He teaches at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.