If you believe Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is the director’s once-and-for-all theatrical swan song (his Liberace biopic will premiere on HBO sometime this year, and the filmmaker hasn’t ruled out working in television), then this film is a fitting end to a prolific career — a microcosm of both the strengths and drawbacks of the man’s filmography. Without the passage of time, it’s difficult to tell how we’ll remember Soderbergh’s oeuvre, but right now his work has been defined by being thematically indefinable, constantly jumping genres and never being afraid to try something new. Side Effects encapsulates much of this spirit, mixing up classifications, its intent to be unpredictable and suprising.
Side Effects begins as one thing and eventually ends up as a completely different movie in both tone and concerns. The film opens following Emily (Rooney Mara), a young wife whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) is being released from a four-year-long prison stint for insider trading. Martin’s release seems to trigger a fit of depression and feelings of hopelessness in Emily, who tries to hurt herself by running her car into a parking garage wall. After being admitted to the hospital for her injuries, she meets Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who agrees to help Emily with her issues. He eventually puts her on a designer antidepressant that brings her out of her funk, but causes side effects, including fits of sleepwalking.
It’s in one of these sleepwalking episodes that she kills Martin with a kitchen knife, and — by blaming the drug along with her inability to remember the event — Emily soon finds herself committed. If you stopped Side Effects right here, you’d have a film that’s little more than a treatise on the dangers and proliferation of prescription drugs in modern society. But this isn’t a film with any grand message. From here, Dr. Banks, becomes the fall guy for Emily’s crime and, with his career and personal life in tatters, he starts to believe there’s more to this crime than the surface suggests. From here, Side Effects becomes more of a mystery film and — without giving away too much of the plot — eventually a bizarrely austere take on the revenge flick with a clever and strange sense of justice.
By the time the credits roll, Soderbergh has made — with its twisting, turning plot — what boils down to a really classy Brian De Palma film. Unfortunately, Soderbergh’s technical proficiency and reluctance to make things too trashy creates a movie that feels too stodgy and distant. While the cast is near perfect (this is the closest I’ve seen Rooney Mara live up to her hype), there’s no real emotional center. Side Effects is such technically proficient filmmaking (despite suffering from too-many-endings syndrome) and so well-crafted that a bit of its entertainment value is lost. But these are, honestly, minor gripes, especially when you set Soderbergh’s film up in contrast to the rest of this winter’s dreary mainstream releases. Rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language.
Playing at Carolina Asheville Cinema 14, Epic of Hendersonville, Regal Biltmore Grande, United Artists Beaucatcher Cinema 7