Review: Side Effects

A young woman’s attempts to improve her mental health go horribly awry in Steven Soderbergh’s spry new thriller.

A word, if you will permit me, about Thomas Newman. The prolific film composer will try this Sunday, for the 11th time, to collect his first Academy Award. His nomination this time came for “Skyfall,” but while it would be a welcome surprise to finally see him collect an Oscar for his atmospheric work on Sam Mendes’ savvy action flick, some part of me feels like it would still be most appropriate for him to win for something like “Side Effects.” From “American Beauty” to “Little Children” to “Revolutionary Road” (and even, to a degree, “Road to Perdition” and “The Shawshank Redemption”), Newman’s defining scores have all specialized in prying open the cracks of domestic bliss. He has never shown much interest in bombastic or extravagant orchestrations; instead he quietly finds the emotional storm brewing underneath a seemingly tranquil surface.

This makes Newman an exceptionally good fit for “Side Effects,” a smart, taut thriller from Steven Soderbergh that is similarly interested in the rotting wood just under its shiny narrative veneer. Carefully, Soderbergh and his frequent screenwriting collaborator Scott Z. Burns (“The Informant!”, “Contagion”) build up a rational, hermetic little world, and then take great glee in poking their own story full of holes. “Everyone knows everything,” Catherine Zeta-Jones archly proclaims at one point, and you can just picture Burns smirking to himself as he wrote that. No one in “Side Effects” knows everything – most certainly not the audience.

The story begins with Emily (Rooney Mara), a young woman awaiting the release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) from prison. Martin was jailed for insider trading; before it all came crashing down, he had built a dream world for Emily with his illegal fortune. She is expected to play the part of loyal wife, to go out with his Wall Street friends and smile and laugh and talk about how grateful she is to have her husband back. But the years of separation and uncertainty have taken their toll, and Emily is firmly in the grips of depression. After purposefully crashing her car in an attempt at self-harm, she seeks the help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Banks (Jude Law), to lift the “poisonous fog” clouding her mind.

Banks is exceedingly calm and competent, a busy but content Middle-Aged Urban Professional. He’s a partner at a profitable private clinic, where he takes on extra patients and joins experimental pharmaceutical studies to support his wife and step-son. He assures Emily that her condition can be treated with the right combination of prescription drugs, and she follows his every recommendation; wouldn’t you if your doctor was as put-together as Jude Law? A new supplement called Ablixa (where do they get these names?) seems to have promising results, until, as a suitably unsettling opening scene has forewarned, something goes horribly wrong.

Intrigue abounds. At times this feels like a film without a protagonist. Our sympathy flip-flops from Emily to Banks and back again in a mess of paranoia, madness and manipulation. The drugs become something of a MacGuffin, a narrative excuse for a swirling, scheming power play between the two characters – a struggle that may only exist in Banks’ mind, anyway.

This is a sharp film, from a creative team that doesn’t condescend to its audience. For much of the film, motivations are muddled, plans are concealed, and information is presented that may or may not be useful later on. Soderbergh and Burns challenge us to keep up, rewarding patience with an entertainingly suspenseful atmosphere, courtesy of Newman’s score and Soderbergh’s own brilliant cinematography. Billed under the pseudonym Peter Andrews, Soderbergh the DP fills the frame with warm, diffuse light, a palate that both comforts and disturbs – the soft orange hues might be pleasing to look at, but they cast long, enveloping shadows.

Soderbergh has always been a great actor’s director as well, and “Side Effects” is no exception. Jude Law in particular is exceptional, walking the very fine line between cunning and desperate. At this point Law is an expert at exploiting both the sympathetic and sinister sides of his charm. Meanwhile, it is easy to forget that this is only Rooney Mara’s third major Hollywood role; after two films with David Fincher, we know she’s perfectly at home in suspense territory, but here she gets to show off an emotional fragility that we haven’t seen yet from her. The last major piece of the puzzle, Catherine Zeta-Jones, is perhaps asked to step a little too far out of her comfort range, but she dives into her mysterious “third man” role with relish and gives the film just the dash of Hitchcock-ian playfulness it needs.

If we are to believe Soderbergh’s interviews, “Side Effects” will be his last feature film. The 50 year-old director/producer/editor/cinematographer has assembled an intriguing career darting nimbly from major studio fare (“Erin Brokovich,” “Traffic,” the “Ocean’s” series) to quirky independent work (“Schizopolis,” “The Girlfriend Experience,” the massive passion project “Che”). Recently he’d settled into a groove of solid, mid-level genre pieces (“Contagion,” “Haywire,” “Magic Mike”) of the kind that Hollywood just doesn’t make that much anymore.

Should “Side Effects” truly be his swan song (never say never, I would advise), it would be a surprising but somewhat fitting note on which to end his film career. It is certainly representative of Soderbergh’s intelligent, adult-oriented sensibilities, as well as his general interest in deception, and the terrifyingly manipulative power of sex, money and drugs. No one in “Side Effects” ever truly seems to be in control of their fate; every action may have unintended consequences. There are forces in the world far too potent, and too impersonal, to agree to our domestic fantasies.

Now playing in theaters.

Verdict: 3 1/2 out of 4 stars

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