[8 February 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It begins with a shot straight out of Psycho. We pan over a building in a very fashionable section of Manhattan, various uniform windows arguing for the anonymity of what is going on inside each high end apartment. As the structure’s outer visage grows closer, we anticipate the reveal, and the purpose behind the deliberate push in to this particular place. Again, the camera moves in. We are nearer. When the motive finally comes, it’s shocking. We are a witness to something awful. There, among the tasteful decor and upscale accessories…is a pool of blood. In the drying death, there are footprints, small ones, intentionally walking through the evidence and indicating the temperament of the responsible party.
Thus Steven Soderbergh’s supposed swansong from mainstream moviemaking, Side Effects, begins. Along the way, this psychological thriller will pay homage to one of the most heralded suspense masters of all time, while trying to trick an audience predisposed to such cinematic sleight of hand. He and his efforts almost pulls it off. The story centers on Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara). It’s been four years since her stockbroker husband (Channing Tatum) went to jail for insider trading. Now he’s out and trying to put their life back together. Emily, on the other hand, is lost and hit with a sudden bout of depression. A foolish act lands her in the hospital, and under the care of genial psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law).
Soon, Emily is heavily medicated and suffering from severe side effects from said drugs, including sleepwalking. Hoping to gain some insight into her condition and possible course of treatment, Dr. Banks visits a former therapist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) who knows more about the girl. Unfortunately, a tragedy finds everyone on the wrong side of the law. It is up to our helpless headshrinker to discover the truth. More importantly, can he place his own career goals and ambitions above the needs of his patient to discover the truth about the pills he prescribes, and more importantly, the people behind them, pushing their use.
At first, Side Effects appears to be a laconic indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, a “what were they thinking” screed which sees unscrupulous reps working over desperate doctors for ‘consulting fees’ and a chance to pin their name to a product that may or may not be safe. We see the calming, complicit advertising, watch as scientists scoff at possible problems, and wonder why we are spending so much time in the company of such callous people. Well, as with any good mystery, this is the red herring, a bit of motion picture prestidigitation that misdirects us from the real story. Indeed, when Emily finds herself arrested for a heinous act, we are required to throw off all the medical mumbo jumbo for a good old fashioned whodunit. Even better, we are asked to play detective along with Dr. Banks, hoping that through his obvious obsession, the truth will be told.
So Side Effects is really just a familiar case of “did she…or didn’t she?” It’s a worthy walk through the typical territory, though Soderbergh’s newfound economical approach to directing does him a slight disservice. We get so wrapped up in the interpersonal dynamics on display, on how Mara and Tatum try and piece their marriage back together after all this time apart that we forget the film has something else to offer. Indeed, the moments where Emily is having her breakdown, including a particularly gripping scene on a large yacht, keep the narrative from giving away too many of its secrets. Once we get to the whole doctor vs. patient predicament, the film has earned enough goodwill to keep us from frothing over its clear contrivances.
This is an actor’s film, and right up front, Ms. Mara is amazing. She has the trickiest part as the most compelling cog in the mystery machine. She also has the most satisfying character arch. Unlike Law, who goes form reasonable to ridiculous in the blink of a man crush eye, she’s never overdone. Instead, she keeps us guessing, right up to the very end. Similarly, Tatum is terrific, doing everything he can to shed his previous himbo hunk persona. As the former treating psychiatrist with some obvious issues, Ms. Zeta-Jones looks matronly…and mad as a hatter. If only Law’s Banks wasn’t so brazen. There are time when he’s perfectly in sync with Soderbergh’s vision. At other instances, he’s channeling someone from a schlocky b-movie.
Luckily, we are witness to a director in complete command of his craft. Soderbergh may be choosing some odd films to end on (Haywire? Magic Mike?)...that is, if he is really retiring, but he never misses the mark, aesthetically. His jazzy, almost approach may fly directly in the face of everything the suspense genre requires, but he ends up building his own concept of dread. We get so wrapped up in the loose ends and unanswered questions that when Soderbergh starts connecting the dots, the result is something solid. The storyline may be nothing more than a rote rewrite of every other psychological nailbiter you’ve seen, but the truth is, Side Effects isn’t bad. It’s actually quite effective.
What it isn’t however, is great. It seems minor, missing a key ingredient or two that would turn it from acceptable to exceptional. Some might read more into Soderbergh’s laidback delivery that is actually onscreen and there is no denying the movie contains some solid work. But when Hitchcock weaved his particular breed of edge of the seat magic, he meant it. We weren’t supposed to merely wince. We were to work ourselves into a lather over the various MacGuffins and murderous intentions on display. Here, Soderbergh is merely manipulating the material to his own unusual beat. The results are worth a look, not inclusion in the genre’s best.