IF THIS really is his final cinema release, then he will be much missed. Steven Soderbergh doesn’t always hit a home run – last year’s Haywire was as narratively messy as the title promised – but his score card is impressive, and he never loses your attention.
Side Effects (15)
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Running time: 106 minutes
Rating: * * * *
Films as diverse as the Ocean’s Eleven breeze, Jennifer Lopez’s only good film Out Of Sight, and the plague drama Contagion have marked him as a successful dealer in mood-altering substances.
This brings us to Side Effects, written by Soderbergh’s Informant and Contagion collaborator, Scott Z Burns. Like all Soderbergh films, it operates at a level of sophistication, with its cool colour palette, elaborate alliances and double-crosses, and nudges that not everyone may be quite what they seem. I was even suspicious of poor Channing Tatum at the start, just because he played Martin, who has just been released from prison for insider trading. This is a movie where the loveably lunky Tatum can do sums? Four years ago, this would be like casting Natalie Portman as a cage fighting star, and although the former GI Joe actor has grown into a convincing screen presence thanks to films like Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, the director can’t be unaware of the cumulative effect of little discombobulations like Tatum in his first white-collar role.
Back at home, the loyal wife Emily (Rooney Mara) has prepared for their reunion by downsizing their mansion into a modest apartment. She seems to have cut back emotionally too; at first she is merely recessive, but a scene or two after Martin has been talking about fresh beginnings in a new town, she deliberately drives her car at a car park wall. She ends up in hospital with remarkably minor abrasions, and then in therapy with Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a sympathetic psychiatrist living beyond his means. After consulting with Emily’s previous therapist, Dr Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), he tries her on a series of prescription drugs then puts her on Ablixa, which a drug company has paid him $50,000 to study during its licensing period. It is a medication that turns out to have tragic side effects.
We should halt the recap here because this is a thriller that deserves to be watched twice, and the first time with as few clues as possible. Not only do you wonder where this is heading, for some time you aren’t even sure what kind of film this is supposed to be. The atmosphere of medical anxiety suggests we could be in for a Contagion-style investigation of false premises and promises. The first half of the film also suggests a parable about professional and chemical semi-detachment, since everyone, including Emily’s boss, chats knowledgeably about the pills they have been popping. There’s also the suggestion that we might be in for another Contagion-style exposé, this time about the corruption of corporate health care – but none of these ideas really takes flight. By the third act it emerges that Soderbergh has other planes in flight; in fact he has a whole fleet of plot points in a holding pattern.
You might be disappointed that when the full story reveals itself it’s more lurid than anticipated. You may even experience feelings of disorientation, uncertainty and a vague sensation of having overdosed on twists: but those are the side effects of a noir as unpredictable and playful as Side Effects.