Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Side Effects

I walked into Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects about 20 minutes late after misreading my ticket and going into Identity Thief. (I sat through all the commercials and previews and didn’t realize my error until the feature started.) I wish I could say that Side Effects is so thematically rich, so visually stunning, or even just so densely plotted that I have to seen it again in order to give it a fair review, but Steven Soderbergh’s “final” film neither requires nor deserves eight more dollars from me.

  Side Effects is nominally a film about psychiatric medication, like the pills Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) takes to combat depression. Emily’s husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has just come off a short jail sentence for insider trading, and early in the film Emily drives her car into a wall in an apparent suicide attempt. Neither Doctors Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) nor Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) can come up with a prescription that works for Emily until Banks prescribes a drug called Ablixa, a drug he is being paid to recruit patients for in a clinical trial. Things appear to be working at first, but when Emily is jailed for murder Banks’ judgment is questioned and his career begins to fall apart. There were a few moments in Side Effects when I thought Scott Z. Burns’ script might turn into an examination of modern-day medical ethics, but no such luck. I wasn't clear why Banks (rather than the drug company) was liable for what happened to Emily, and the way in which he seems to be working both as Emily’s doctor and with the police during her trial is a plot point that would get called out in a Law & Order writers’ room.

 The stew of plot devices that is Side Effects feels like something one would find in a Lifetime movie as opposed to a script worthy of Soderbergh. Drugs, murder, dueling psychiatrists, insider trading, and (my favorite) situational lesbianism all get their moment and the result puts all the right people in their place but the movie never takes hold. Banks is meant to be a creature of the post-recession world, taking on too much work when his wife (Vinessa Shaw) loses her job, but the ease with which he manipulates others while fighting for his life is a bit much to take. Rooney Mara is the highlight of Side Effects, believable when she’s supposed to be lost in a haze of medication and also as something much more dangerous. It’s a bold performance and different enough from her signature Dragon Tattoo role to confirm that she’s the real thing. Both Rooney Mara and Steven Soderbergh (who directs in his usual dry style when something else was needed) deserve better material, but at least we know when Mara will be back.

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