Film review: Side Effects

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Pill-popping leads to strained relationships for Rooney Mara in Side Effects. Pill-popping leads to strained relationships for Rooney Mara in Side Effects.

Drug interactions: Steven Soderbergh’s psycho-thriller Side Effects proves he should not retire

The trailers for Side Effects, director Steven Soderbergh’s new thriller, make it look like an indictment of all things pharmaceutical. It’s not that, though its view of the pharmaceutical industry is pretty grim. Rather, it’s a conventional thriller that has the smart pacing, loose-looking but tightly planned camera work, and excellent performances we’ve come to expect from Soderbergh.

It’s a bummer, then, that he’s done making movies—for now. Who else can direct films as diverse as Contagion, Haywire, Magic Mike, and now, Side Effects, all within the span of two years?

Side Effects is nifty, nimble, and mildly mean-spirited, if you’re given to the bent that we’ve had enough movies about evil women. I’m not given to that bent. A thriller needs an evil character, and there’s a 50 percent chance that character could have ovaries.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is suffering from severe depression. Her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), has been in prison for four years after being convicted of insider trading. Now he’s out, and she’s a mess as they readjust.

After a botched suicide attempt, she’s prescribed antidepressants by psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) at the hospital where she’s treated. They don’t work. Banks puts her on different medications. She sleepwalks. Bad, bad things happen.

I usually don’t care about giving up spoilers, mostly because you can see them coming. But to reveal too much of Side Effects would be to give away too much, and there are many layers to this psychological thriller.

A few of those layers, especially as the movie moves toward its conclusion, are completely eye roll-worthy. In fact, the movie’s big a-ha! moment is so absurd, it actually produced a groan in the theater. Thankfully, the groan-worthiness of that moment—and it’s a doozy—is assuaged by Soderbergh’s characteristic quick-but-not-choppy editing, short scenes, and his fine photography.

The best surprise about Side Effects is Law as Banks, showing the charisma, promise and likeability that some of his earlier performances hinted at, but has been missing since roughly The Talented Mr. Ripley. Here he plays a genuinely caring, nice guy who gets in over his head because he gets too involved with his patients.

Don’t misunderstand. Banks is not a golden boy, but there is something in Law’s performance that makes us want to give him the benefit of the doubt long after our goodwill for his character’s shortcomings should have evaporated.

The weak link is Mara, who’s saddled with playing a damsel in distress and a femme fatale at the same time. Damsel in distress she handles well enough, but the toughness she brought to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo seems to have faded, even as the plot machinations begin twisting in Side Effects’ final third and her character shifts into overdrive.

Still, Side Effects works, and has moments that are great. It’s worth seeing, and worth hoping for movie fans that Soderbergh’s plan to paint full-time becomes part-time, and the other part-time job is making movies.

Side Effects/R, 106 minutes/Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX

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