Side Effects is exactly what you might expect from a Steven Soderbergh film … until it’s not. The film is well-acted, elegantly shot, and riveting through its first hour, but after one or two too many plot twists in the film’s later acts, the whole thing feels entirely too contrived and neatly-packaged. It’s almost too clever for its own good.
Emily and Martin Taylor (Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum) are a NY couple recently reunited after Martin served a jail term for insider trading. Their happiness at being able to resume their married lives together is marred, however, by Emily’s struggles with depression, which intensify with Martin’s return to the business world. After an apparent suicide attempt, Emily comes to the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who immediately begins weekly meetings with her and a regimen of anti-depressants.
With the help of a fellow psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who had treated Emily previously, Jonathan tries to steer his new patient away from the oppressive hopelessness she feels each day. The drugs and therapy seem to have little effect, however, until after some trial and error Emily starts taking a new drug called Ablixa. The new pills have a dramatically positive effect at first, but as time passes certain side effects reveal themselves, side effects that turn out to be far more dangerous than the couple and Dr. Banks are prepared for.
To reveal any more would possibly give away some of the film’s twists and secrets, but savvy movie goers just know going in that when a film is characterized as a “psychological thriller” not everything is as it seems. It should suffice to say that this film is not just about a couple trying to save their marriage, nor is it just about the terrible toll that depression can take on an individual and their friends and loved ones, or even about the “trial-and-error” methodology of modern psychiatrists prescribing anti-depressants and the potential for damage in misdiagnosis. It could have been about any of those things and still been a compelling piece of celluloid, but screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, The Bourne Ultimatum) had something far more Hitchcock-ian in mind.
Unfortunately, its the addition of that element of suspense in the form of a murder mystery that starts Side Effects down a slow, steady slope of decreasing believability. Soderbergh does what he’s done so well with his more recent thrillers like Haywire and Contagion — draw strong, nuanced performances from his talented cast and craft mood and tension through use of lighting and camerawork — but he’s working from a script that’s got just two or three too many contrivances, moments meant to have you thinking, “Oh, wow, didn’t see that coming!” that after a while may leave you instead saying “Oh, come on!”
The cast is certainly game for the script’s twists and turns, and Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) in particular turns in a memorable performance that may remind you of Edward Norton’s stunning breakout work in another thriller, Primal Fear (1996). Don’t let the movie’s poster fool you into thinking that this is yet another Channing Tatum vehicle, though — he’s definitely in a supporting role here, and it’s Jude Law’s Dr. Banks who’s far more of a focal figure in the plot. Good thing, too, as the plot puts the good doctor through the ringer, and Law’s skills prove well suited to making the character’s growing desperation and apparent paranoia believable and relatable, especially when the film’s plot veers into “Are you kidding me? Seriously? ” territory.
The bottom line is that the plight of the characters established in the first hour and all the twists and turns will more than likely be enough to compel you to want to see how it all plays out at the end. But a less convoluted, less gimmicky film might have had more lasting resonance and impact, might have left you thinking about marriages surviving separation and/or mental illness, or even about how prevalent anti-depressants have become in our world and how it seems everyone has an opinion on them, because everyone at one point or another seems to have taken them. Conversations that might have sprung from an honest examination of those topics in a film might have made Side Effects a more memorable film in the grand scheme of things.
Score: 3 out of 5
Starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Channing Tatum. Directed by Steven Soderbergh.
Running Time: 102 minutes
Rated R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language.