Review: Side Effects

Dose call. Polanski and Hitchcock and De Palma, oh my!

| February 06, 2013
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Side Effects | B

Whatever happened to the A-list suspense thriller? They were the stock in trade of cinema for the 1990s, boasting clever scripts and top-notch casts, providing audiences with a reliably satisfying night at the movies. Films like Malice, Presumed Innocent and Primal Fear were dependably middlebrow entertainment, reaping modest or better critical reviews and box office returns. Today, the genre is defined by half-hearted features dumped into theaters during off-blockbuster months or, worse, exiled to video on demand.

In director Steven Soderbergh’s self-professed final feature film Side Effects (HBO will premiere his Liberace biopic), he returns to the sense and sensibilities of those claustrophobic potboilers ... but with his trademark cinematic quirks and obsessions. Not content to simply present a tortuous thriller, Soderbergh pulls off a series of dramatic sleights of hand, undermining genre expectations and keeping the audience continually off-balance, wondering where his crazed yarn will go next.

Rooney Mara is Emily, a nervous young woman trying to reconnect with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) after he’s released from a four-year prison sentence for insider trading. That conviction upended the couple’s posh lifestyle, reducing Emily to the horrors of a bourgeois existence. The pressure of acclimating to Martin’s return exacerbates Emily’s longstanding struggle with anxiety and depression, and she rashly attempts to kill herself by driving her car into a wall. Put under the care of an earnest psychiatrist (Jude Law) with less than steadfast scruples, Emily is introduced to a new anti-depressant at the recommendation of a former physician (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The drug seems to work, but induces sleepwalking as a side effect. That, unfortunately, leads to an accidental murder. Is the company that manufactures the drug hiding something, or is there a more nefarious game afoot?

From Soderbergh’s head-scratching opening homage to Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby to a plot that, at first, seems to be a cautionary legal tale of big pharma abuses, Side Effects unexpectedly develops into a postmodern Hitchcockian thriller —which is actually akin to one of Brian De Palma’s chilly psychological puzzles. That’s an awful lot of cinematic referencing for one movie. But let me put a cherry on top, won’t you? With its eventual double-cross plot turns, paranoid wrong-man drama, and corrupt corporate subtext, Side Effects plays like a particularly nasty episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent had it been directed by Robert Altman.

True to its title, Scott Z. Burns’ (The Informant!) script is filled with characters forced to reassess their situation as the unintended consequences of their actions come back to bite them. So too is the audience asked to recalibrate its expectations as the movie slowly reveals its too-clever-for-its-own-good intentions.

Mara is uncomfortably effective at conveying Emily’s emotional desperation. Her portrayal is not one of actorly tics and melodramatic gimmicks, but rather convincing psychological distress. Law turns in one of his best performances yet. Charming and empathetic, he believably unravels into a wild-eyed mess as his world starts to collapse around him. If only the movie had indulged in his decline a little more.

Eventually emerging as the film’s put-upon protagonist, Law’s paranoia and distress should have played a bigger role in his final scheme for redemption. While Soderbergh’s meticulously framed shots and economical approach are effective at reining in Side Effects’ flourishes, he’s too calculated in the way he unlocks the film’s secrets. There’s too little panic and passion fueling Law’s final coup de grace and, while justice is ultimately served, it isn’t quite poetic enough to linger after the last credits roll. mt

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