by Tony Dayoub
If Side Effects is the final theatrical film for Steven Soderbergh—even if only for a shorter period than the "forever" he originally implied—then what a movie to bow out with. There are all kinds of reasons even the most attentive moviegoer might have had cause to think otherwise. One could start with its generic title or its below-the-title ensemble cast or the fact that it's being released at a time of year studios usually reserve for dumping their most problematic films. But why not look at the way he's constructed the film itself. Side Effects is the kind of movie in which any review must be written carefully in order to preserve its effect on a first-time viewer, a promise I'll keep in my own brief assessment.
Side Effects is being marketed as an exposé on the cultural and economic consequences surrounding the prescription drug industry. And for much of its first act, it is. Like many of us today, graphic artist Emily (Rooney Mara) has reason to be a depressed wreck. Husband Martin (Channing Tatum) went to jail for insider trading, demolishing their lavish lifestyle at a time when the recession was just around the bend. His release hasn't really made matters better. Like in Soderbergh's last two films—The Girlfriend Experience and Magic Mike—materialism drives every character with a persistence that never seems to let up. Martin's desire to recover the financial freedom the couple once shared pushes him to seek get-rich-quick schemes that might force the two to leave New York for Houston. Em's psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) seems as motivated by financial incentives from drug companies as he is from genuine empathy in selecting which meds he prescribes his increasingly anxiety-ridden patient. And then there's Dr. Victoria Siebert, (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Em's icy former therapist, who only prods Dr. Banks to prescribe Ablixa, a new anti-depressant, seemingly because she's loaded up with samples and promotional items provided to her by the latest pharmaceutical rep she's met with.
As Em, the intriguing Mara (The Social Network) is fascinating to watch. Her porcelain complexion and sculpted symmetry are qualities which make her seem even more fragile than Side Effects' script alone might have suggested. There is a troubling limpidness to her big grey eyes that suggest a person of more fortitude trapped in the brittle shell of a body controlled by the unpredictable symptoms that arise with every new prescription she tries. From suicidal lows to manic highs, increased sex-drive to casual frigidity, Mara's Em is tossed around like a ship adrift in a storm, looking for safe harbor.
There are tragic consequences for everyone, of course. And despite a shock scene marking the start of every character's trials—one mitigated by the film's portentous opening scene—the cautionary Side Effects could still be an effective companion to Soderbergh's Traffic, a movie that examines the drug war from all sides the way this one casts a spotlight on the legal pharmaceutical industry. A shift in Side Effects' narrative perspective at this point—from that of Emily to that of Dr. Banks—only extends the relationship between the two films. We gradually learn of the emotional and financial pressures Banks faces. In addition to a private practice, he holds down a second job at a hospital in order to support his capable but unemployed wife (Vinessa Shaw), who's having trouble finding a job and pay for his stepson's private school. The surprising effect of his prescription on Em suddenly puts Banks at the center of the film, as it becomes a legal/medical procedural in which the aggrieved doctor must defend himself in order to preserve not only his career but his marriage and attendant lifestyle.
Surprisingly late into Side Effects, Soderbergh still manages to have one more trick up his sleeve. Another tonal shift calls into question exactly the type of movie the director is going for here, and he pulls it off with the assurance of a master filmmaker. Side Effects is Soderbergh's multi-perspective summation on a thoroughly contemporary American phenomenon, one that's fueled by economic unease and hearkens back to the director's earliest genre efforts. Perhaps the most surprising part is the film's assertion that Soderbergh—retiring out of a certain sense of boredom (only temporarily one hopes)—is still at the top of his game. Ultimate in more ways than one, Side Effects may just be THE quintessential Soderbergh film.
Side Effects opens February 8th.