He went from terrifying medical thriller to butt-kicking action heroine to male stripper dramedy in the span of nine months, and they were all terrific. Not to mention that each has its own visual style and narrative techniques that make it almost impossible to tell that they were helmed by the same director. Even when he’s making pure popcorn entertainment, there’s no running in place; that’s why all three “Ocean’s” entries are so different from one another.
I’ll be extremely disappointed if “Side Effects” ends up being Soderbergh’s final theatrical effort (we’ve still got his upcoming Liberace biopic for HBO to look forward to), but I have to admit it works as a fitting sendoff. It’s basically five different movies rolled into one, changing genres every time the audience starts to get comfortable. The unending progression will probably alienate some viewers, but I found it wildly entertaining.
Those even remotely interested in seeing the film should avoid all trailers and reviews. Except this one, of course, where I’ll keep things vague and spoiler-free. Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor, a disaffected wife trying to readjust to married life after her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), completes a multi-year stint in prison for insider trading.
The process is more difficult than she anticipated, so she begins meeting regularly with a psychiatrist (Jude Law) who prescribes a new Zoloft-style antidepressant. As the title suggests, Emily’s use of the new drug has a few unintended consequences. I’ll just leave it at that.
“Side Effects” makes total sense as a final Soderbergh film. The director who makes a completely different movie every time at bat has now applied that attitude to a single story. In the span of two hours, viewers are immersed in a tale of manners concerning a formerly-wealthy married couple adjusting to their new life; a searing critique of the pharmaceutical industry; a Lifetime Channel melodrama; a paranoid conspiracy thriller; and a yarn about a wronged man attempting to repair his reputation. It’s enough to cause repeated whiplash, but I loved almost every minute of it.
Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns have established themselves as a reliably stellar team, previously working together on the clever “The Informant!” and the outstanding “Contagion.” Their latest collaboration makes them three-for-three. Burns’ straightforward narrative style works perfectly in tandem with Soderbergh’s muted tone and gorgeous, minimalist camerawork. (As usual, the filmmaker acts as his own cinematographer.)
Mara (an Oscar nominee for “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”) is fantastic in a role more complex than it initially seems. She underplays everything, even her wilder scenes in the last act, making her a truly unsettling and intriguing character. Law matches her intensity as a therapist who is not exactly an angel, but still has his patients’ best interests at heart. The actor is so great at playing weasels that it’s almost unsettling to see him portray a mostly decent guy. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, which is likely the reason Soderbergh cast him.
Tatum is also good as Emily’s concerned husband, though it’s much more of a supporting performance than the ads suggest. Still, he continues one of the most impressive career turnarounds in recent memory: the dude from “Step Up” convincingly plays a white-collar criminal trying to repair his marriage. Nice job, Mr. Tatum.
Catherine Zeta-Jones, as Emily’s former therapist, isn’t in the movie much either, but she definitely makes her presence known. It’s a nice showcase for a talented actress who’s had a rough go of it lately (the less said about “Playing for Keeps” or “Rock of Ages” the better). Fortunately, Soderbergh – who also directed her in “Traffic” and “Ocean’s Twelve” – knows when to give her an opportunity to play to her strengths.
“Side Effects” probably won’t go down as one of the most important films of Soderbergh’s career, but it’s unquestionably one of his most entertaining. It’s fun, it’s clever and there are more twists and turns than I could count. The movie takes some bizarre paths, but it’s never boring. That’s more than you can say for most flicks released in the winter months.
“Side Effects” is rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language.