Steven Soderbergh has announced that Side Effects will be his last Hollywood film. At 50, he’s done; he’s said that he’s going to turn to painting and, maybe, directing television. But after directing Sex, Lies, and Videotape, Out of Sight, The Limey, Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Oceans 11, Che, The Informant, and Magic Mike, I would want to go out with a bang. Side Effects is a whimper. It’s basically a long, relatively well-acted Law & Order episode, complete with discussions of double jeopardy and a “shocking” but offensively retrograde ending.
As with all Law & Order episodes, the plot is deceptively simple: Emily (Rooney Mara) is married to Martin (Channing Tatum), who is being released from prison after serving five years for insider trading. As they try to get the life in New York back to normal, which for them means black tie parties and lots of money, Emily cannot shake her depression. After driving her car into a wall, she starts treatment with the psychiatrist who evaluated her in the ER. Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), an upwardly mobile Brit with a beautiful wife and small son, prescribes several anti-depressants before settling on a new one called Ablixa, which Emily’s former psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) recommends. Unfortunately, while Ablixa helps Emily love life again, it has a rather annoying side effect: Sleepwalking.
This becomes particularly problematic when Emily, while sleepwalking, or rather, sleepcooking, stabs her husband with a very large kitchen knife. While the police and the DA are rightly quite suspicious, Emily doesn’t seem to have a motive. Quickly the focus falls on Ablixa and then on the doctor who prescribed it. As Banks’s life and career become unraveled and then ruined by the scandal, he begins to obsess over Emily and her case. Twists! Turns! The end.
Because Soderbergh is running things, he had no trouble casting the movie perfectly, and he seems incapable of directing a bad scene, even if he himself is sleepwalking through the filmmaking, as he is here. The slight, sparrow-like Rooney Mara is a dull depressive for the first half of the film, but then her transformation in the second half reminded me why she was nominated for an Oscar for David Fincher’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Jude Law, one of most consistent actors working, doesn’t have as juicy a role as he did playing a disaster profiteer in Soderbergh’s silly Contagion, but he still is masterful as he holds the film together morally and emotionally.
Zeta-Jones, whose greatest role was in Soderbergh’s masterpiece Traffic, is sly and sexy, per usual, but Soderbergh and his screenwriter Scott Z. Burns turn her into a rather nasty cliché by the end of the film. My jaw dropped, and I said out loud, “Really? Really?”
Oh, and Channing Tatum is in the movie. He’s hot, and then he’s dead.
To be fair, Soderbergh isn’t as much at fault for Side Effects as Burns is. The script is what makes the film so pedantic and, while not obvious, not shocking. Burns just took the silly hysteria about the dangers of anti-depressants and uses it as a backdrop for a story of criminal suspense. This is the formula for just about every “ripped from the headlines” police procedural on TV. If Side Effects had been an actual Law & Order episode, it would have been the best one ever. But as a Steven Soderbergh movie, especially for his last feature, it’s just lazy.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, and Catherine Zeta-Jones
At your local multiplex