Finally in this post Oscar’s season of discontent comes a watchably exciting movie – Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects”. Written by Scott Burns (who also did “Contagion” and the upcoming sequel to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), this movie actually nicely sucker-punches its audience into thinking it’s a ‘simple’ story of medical malfeasance and the hazards of our drug-addicted culture. It’s certainly that too, but there’s a fabulous twist half way through when you cotton on to the real story lurking beneath the surface. It becomes apparent that the side effects of the title refers to much more than drugs but to the side effects of lust and money.
The story offers us a delicious cast of fallen characters – Channing Tatum (bland and unconvincing and the weakest of the characters) is the most obvious crook in the line up, having just returned from four years in prison for inside trading (which he dismisses as “whatever that means”). His counterpart is Jude Law as Dr. Jonathan Banks – an upstanding, sympathetic healer. Banks is quickly revealed as less than upstanding – he’s a slightly sleazy psychiatrist; someone who would, for the right cash in hand, probably have prescribed sleeping potions for Michael Jackson. Law’s character shifts from that of a slickly burnished charmer to that of an increasingly desperate, stressed out individual who, driven to the edge, becomes a man obsessed.
This manic intensity is nicely counterbalanced by Dr. Victoria Siebert – Catherine Zeta Jones – cool, unruffled and deviously calculating. You know when a beautiful woman like Zeta Jones appears with her hair in a bun and over-sized glasses on her face, that the bun will come down and the glasses will come off. Just wait for it.
Rooney Mara’s neuroses are at the center of the story. She conveys them brilliantly. This is an actress whose face shifts effortlessly from beautiful to dull to menacing in heartbeats.
And this is what Soderbergh has managed to achieve so well in this movie. By presenting us with such a flawed cast of mercurial ever shifting characters, he keeps us slightly off balance. He initially presents us with an object of sympathy – Rooney Mara’s Emily, a depressive woman unbalanced by life and theoretically rebalanced by the magical drug Ablixir, – but slowly he strips away this sympathy, leaving us in a world where we really don’t know who to trust and who to side with.
This is Soderbergh back to “Contagion” form. His last few outings – “Haywire” and “Magic Mike” were amateurish embarrassments. Maybe he should work with Scott Burns more often