A young wife finds her life unraveling due to depression and her attempts to treat it in Side Effects, a movie (possibly his last) from director Steven Soderbergh.
Or, I could have said it this way:
Side Effects is a movie about a psychiatrist who has to live with the unexpected fallout of prescribing a depressed patient a new anti-anxiety drug.
Not only is it not clear what kind of movie Side Effects is — are we watching a darkly funny commentary on our pharmaceutical-enhanced culture, or is this an old-fashioned mystery-thriller? — I’m not completely sure which character you’d consider the central character.
Which is, of course, part of what makes the movie so much fun.
Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) welcomes home her husband Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum), who has been in jail for insider trading. They have a small apartment and she has a decent job, but these things are shadows of their former life. Or perhaps there’s something else going on in the marriage of Emily and Martin, or just something else happening to Emily, who has had to hold it all together for the handful of years he was away. A few days after he gets home, she runs her car into a wall in an underground parking garage.
She isn’t really hurt but clearly something’s wrong. The doctor who catches her case, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), wants to admit her into the mental hospital. But Emily says the car crash was a momentary mistake and gets him to agree to outpatient sessions and, of course, medication. The first drug doesn’t offer her much — we see her disinterested in sex and not sleeping well. She — as well as her former doctor Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and calming ads on television — gets Jonathan thinking about Ablixa, a new medication that might offer her some relief. He prescribes it and it seems like Emily has become happier, more clear headed, engaged with life.
But then the sleepwalking starts.
As you have probably heard, Side Effects is the kind of movie where to say more than what I’ve said starts to give away some of the fun.
We get some nice twists and turns and Side Effects is the rare movie that pulls this off in a way that feels organic, not like you’re being jerked because “now is when we get the second act surprise.” A movie can choose to not tell you who Keyser Soze is but Side Effects let’s its secrets unfold rather than explode.
Side Effects is smart and surprises you with moments of dark humor and is, above all, very Soderbergh. There’s a kind of seediness in Side Effects that is a hallmark of many a good Soderbergh movie. No win is ever pure, no good guy is totally unvarnished. Even the villains aren’t just mwah ha ha evil; there’s always some almost-embarrassing bit of grimyiness to them. Add that to the very detached, disinterested observer point of view and you have movies that are often clinical but brutal (think of Soderbergh’s rather matter-of-fact killing of not just — spoiler alert — Gwyneth Paltrow but also her moppet, a pregnant lady, a tireless public health worker and more in Contagion) and quiet but also wicked in their wryness. Somehow, he creates these movies were we get invested in these characters but the movie never lets us completely be on their side.
I’m sure this is a thing some people find aggravating about Soderbergh; there is a shell you never crack through in a Soderbergh movie. But I like it and I’m usually reremined of how much I like it every time I see one of his movies again or can spot the Soderbergh-ness in a new movie. If Side Effects truly is his last big Hollywood movie, (as reports in his New York magazine interview and elsewhere seem to suggest it might be — at least for a while), I’m going to miss this very particular, unique story-telling style. B+
Rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language. Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z Burns, Side Effects is an hour and 55 minutes long and distributed by Open Road Films.