Steven Soderbergh’s been on a tear as of late, unfurling some of the finest work of his career with his post-Ocean’s Thirteen output. Works like Girlfriend Experience, Haywire, Contagion and Magic Mike suggest a filmmaker at peace with both his craft and curiosities. Thirteen becomes something of a benchmark as it’s the last time the guy made something that had an air of “one for them” about it.
Side Effects, the second-to-last film in a streak the prolific filmmaker claims his swan song, feels very much in step with the director’s output of late, all slow burn emotion housed in the controlled, calming sterility of his trademark cinematography. But, working once again off a Scott Z. Burns (Contagion) script, Soderbergh fails at furnishing a compelling experience.
The pieces are in place in the form of a solid cast that boasts Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta-Jones as well as recent-Soderbergh collaborators Jude Law and Channing Tatum. The director and cast end up with an effort that looks better than it reads, a film that slows to a crawl in the first act only to culminate at the halfway point, then petering out for the remainder of its runtime.
The plot offers a few twists, so allow me to dance all vaguely around what you may have pieced together from trailers or interviews. Rooney Mara is a cold stone as Emily Taylor, a housewife living under the veil of depression as she welcomes her husband (Tatum) home after a forced-sabbatical on account of some mild insider trading. She finds little solace in his return, attempting suicide and ending up in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Law). Banks finds himself collaborating with Taylor’s former doctor, Victoria Siebert (Zeta-Jones), over how to medicate his volatile patient. Her negative reaction to an anti-depressant, the fictional Ablixa, places Banks in a firestorm of self-doubt, infidelity and murder.
And then it all gets solved. Neatly. Leading to one of the most extended (cribbing Wayne’s World) “Mega Happy Endings” I’ve ever seen onscreen.
I’m not calling Side Effects a bad film. It’s slick, well acted, confidently directed, ect. But shit gets tedious quickly, and not in a way that can be mistaken for heady or analytical. Side Effects is a mystery without any real mystery, revealing its hand too early and lending itself to an overlong epilogue where everything plays itself out as predictably as possible
From a screenwriter who wrote one of 2012’s better scripts in Contagion, Scott Z. Burns should have known better. He writes a cluster of scenes where the characters in play just explain their actions and motivations. “Here’s why I did what I did. Here’s what this person did and why they did it. Here’s how we did it together. And we almost got away with it, too. More tea?”
It makes for an experience that asks some fruitful questions regarding medical practice, our over-medicated nation, and our predisposition to abusing systems. Though its hardly an indictment of its subject matter, answering those questions in the most mundane, rudimentary ways – deflating moral quandaries into cartoonery.
The topic of depression is handled capably. There’s plenty of setup to clue you in on the disease, symptoms, treatment. It never disrespects and in fact takes great care handling what could have been a rather downtrodden approach to a disease that affects many of the people seeing the film. The fear of a side effect causing as much damage as it does here is a very real concern. Side Effects is content to play in that ethical sandbox for a stretch, though it doesn’t stay there as long as you might suspect.
Of the cast, Tatum feels marginalized while Mara gets to spread her wings and her eyebrows (finally) in a role that allows more freedom as it progresses. Zeta-Jones never clicks in her doctor role, so much so that her performance feels like a red herring for an all-too-telegraphed reveal.
Law’s the real money-maker, proving once again how capable he is under Soderbergh’s trademark guidance. I was surprised to discover the actor the star of the film, a notion the trailers seem to be purposefully driving away. Even so, he becomes the one you find yourself rooting for long after you know he’s going to win (or at least hold the appearance of winning). I’d have liked to see Law go deeper, pushing the sense of unhinging obsession the film hints at, but Law plays it relatively straight start to finish, savoring only a few choice scenes. A restrained but wholly competent labor.
Side Effects gets to be that rare effort where “fine” isn’t enough. It looks and feels like greatness in parts but when you’re left with the whole you discover a pretty disjointed and poorly structured film. Perhaps an edit strengthening the mystery and lessening the resolution would have sufficed. The questions the film asks are either abandoned or answered all too easily up front.
It’ll make for a rewarding watch when it hits rental and streaming services in a few months; though some will find Soderbergh’s latest a middling pill to swallow.