Friday, March 1, 2013

Side Effects Offers Engagingly Pulpy Thrills

Need an oily screen presence who can be a patsy and a
master manipulator? Jude Law's your man.
When I first heard Steven Soderbergh was going to tackle a film focusing on pharmaceuticals, I instantly imagined a heavy-hitting exposé in the vein of Traffic. Then, when I saw the trailer for Side Effects, I thought “Oh no, ok, this is actually going to be a more focused ethical commentary on therapists’ increasing willingness to overmedicate patients.” There’s some of that in the opening reel, but Side Effects is ultimately much more concerned with being an engagingly pulpy psychological thriller about a wrongly accused man.

The film focuses on Emily (Rooney Mara), a woman whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has recently been released from prison after serving four years for insider trading. This causes Emily to sink once again into depression (she previously had a hard time dealing with Martin’s incarceration), leading her to attempt suicide and thus come under the care of psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).
Banks has no misgivings about taking lucrative consulting jobs for drug studies, but he does genuinely seem to care about his patients. He even contacts Emily’s former shrink (Catherine Zeta Jones) in the hopes of learning more facts about her condition. Banks places Emily on a new drug that controls her depression but leads to sleepwalking. Ultimately, it leads to a tragedy that drastically alters the lives of all the principles.
I’d rather not give anything else away – most of the fun comes from watching how things unfold. I will say that Soderbergh follows Magic Mike (read my review here) with another foray into a genre enmeshed in camp only to emerge with a grade-A cinematic experience. Side Effects manages to be a well-oiled character piece and riotous B-movie thriller all at once. It comes from the same general place as Fatal Attraction and Primal Fear, except its far leaner and lived-in thanks to that Steven Soderbergh feeling.
Most girls would not be depressed to have a doting Channing
Tatum return home to them. Rooney Mara isn't most girls.
There’s a great deal of craft in this thing, from the Soderbergh’s deft camerawork to Scott Z. Burns’ delightfully twisted script. Meanwhile, hot off the heels of his Oscar-nominated work in Skyfall, composer Thomas Newman contributes a hypnotically uneasy score. As was the case with their last collaboration, The Good German, Newman’s score may be the only thing about the latest Soderbergh film to be remembered come Oscar time (if, in fact, the Academy goes for it at all).
But it’s the acting that really sets the film apart. Mara continues to show a great deal of range, expertly essaying a tricky character that her Lisbeth Salander would despise. However, it’s Law who steals the show here by brining a whole spectrum of emotions to the table. He’s equal parts compassionate, smug, upstanding, paranoid, self-righteous, and vindictive. It really is a masterful performance, and a case of perfect casting. In Contagion, Soderbergh used Law’s inherent slipperiness to inhabit the bad guy who’s seemingly on the right side. Here, he inverts that setup for even greater results.
Side Effects supposedly marks Soderbergh’s final theatrical release. He’s got one more film to come – an HBO original about Liberace starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon – but otherwise, he’s headed off into retirement in the hopes of pursuing other artistic endeavors. I’m hoping he takes a few years to refuel and then comes back to us, and great little films like Side Effects are the perfect reason why. A-