Side Effects

Hitchcock on Prozac; a well-medicated thriller

Side Effects

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Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Vinessa Shaw, David Costabile, Andrea Bogart, Kenneth Simmons, Mamie Gummer, Brian Distance, Ashlie Atkinson. Written by Scott Z. Burns.

Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects starts out as one kind of movie and becomes something else entirely. It has you rooting for one character and then switching sides. And you’re riveted throughout the entire thing. The thriller genre is so well-trodden these days that simply seeing a competently-made feature that manages a surprise or two is cause for celebration. 

But Side Effects goes beyond mere competence: it’s expertly crafted, with the type of skill that would make Hitchcock proud, from a director who is in complete control every step of the way. Soderbergh manipulates the audience along with every twist and turn, and the result is a genuinely satisfying ride that manages to overcome some of the more…unlikely aspects of its story.

Right. The general rule is that you can ask one leap of faith of your audience per film; any more, and you’re asking for trouble. Side Effects, by my count, has two glaring implausibilities along with a host of smaller ones. This may sink the film in the eyes of some – indeed, it would sink most films for me – but the skill with which it is all put together is wildly entertaining in its own right; I was sufficiently wowed by the technique here to forgive the more incredible aspects, and I suspect others will be distracted enough to not even notice them. 

The title comes from those fine-print messages and the bottom of bottles, that quick voiceover at the end of the commercials: “Warning: this product may also cause…” This is especially timely – if unlikely – ground for a thriller to cover, and writer Scott Z. Burns’ script, at its best, gleefully shreds apart the pill-popping industry. 

The film stars Channing Tatum as Martin Taylor, a recently-released white collar criminal who returns from a stint in jail to find his wife Emily (Rooney Mara) in a state of depression. After a pseudo-suicide attempt, Emily finds herself in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who consults with Emily’s previous physician (Catherine Zeta-Jones) before starting her on some anti-depressants…

More I will not say; one of the joys of this film is interesting and unexpected places the plot takes us, and what we find ourselves rooting for along the way. 

Ah yes, the implausibilities. Without revealing anything, I will say this: a key event in the film is so poorly thought out that it goes beyond the realm of acceptable character judgment and into the realm of “oh, come on…” And it’s extremely unlikely that a particular character would hold a certain position given previous events in the film. 

Like any thriller, Side Effects will strain your credibility. But I was shocked at how much I found myself willing to accept here. This is a real blast, the kind of ride that can invoke the style of Hitchcock without suffering by comparison. (Side note: I just caught Brian de Palma’s gloriously nutty, so-bad-it’s-wonderful Passion at Febio Fest, an unexpectedly welcome return to form for the director.)

The cast here is excellent: Mara, a few years (and a couple David Fincher films) removed from starring in the awful Nightmare on Elm Street remake, has quickly become one of Hollywood’s hottest commodities – and for good reason. I wasn’t sure, while watching, if Law was the right choice for the psychiatrist – his trademark smarminess, while perfect for roles such as his one in Contagion, makes him a less-than-fully sympathetic presence – but the director expertly plays off our apprehension towards him. In retrospect, I can’t imagine anyone else in the role. 

An original soundtrack by Thomas Newman is superb; Soderbergh plays with tone and expectations throughout the film, and Newman matches him at every step with a soundtrack that plays just fine by itself, but also adds immeasurably to the momentum and experience of watching the film. 

Soderbergh has been threatening retirement for years, and Side Effects is reportedly his last theatrical feature (a Liberace biopic, starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, is due to hit HBO later this year). I don’t buy it, but if true, Hollywood will be losing one of its most gifted filmmakers; he’s effortlessly crossed genres, pioneered new techniques, and continuously reinvented himself over a 20+ year career, and Side Effects is as good a note to go out on as anything. 

Also opening this week: 

  • Excuse Me (showtimes | IMDb), a Danish comedy from director Henrik Ruben Genz. Screening in Danish with Czech subtitles.

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