Always believe in Steven Soderbergh. It's the one thing I've learned in the past couple decades of watching movies. Few people direct movies like Soderbergh does — smart, entertaining, adventurous films made often with a surprisingly consistent quality. While he often returns to some of the same themes (huge systemic thrillers, intimate crime movies, indie experimentation, George Clooney), his oeuvre is so varied that it's entirely possible for someone to never make the connection that same guy made both Magic Mike and Traffic. He doesn't get as much cred as he should, likely because he's relatively mainstream-friendly and he's still working, even though he threatens to retire every other release. But once his story is over, he'll be lauded as an all-time great.
Side Effects itself is a surprise, both for what it is, and what it's not. It follows Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young woman who's been waiting a few years for the release of her husband (Channing Tatum*), in prison for insider trading. What should be a glorious reunion is hampered by turmoil because, you see, Emily's got SEVERE depression — severe enough to drive her car at full speed into the wall of her parking garage.
Enter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who happens to be working at the hospital when Emily is brought in. In exchange for releasing her into her husband's custody, she has to agree to see him every week so they can work on her issues together. A few different anti-depressants don't work very well, but then one works really well, but has an unexpected side effect as Emily starts sleepwalking and performing weird nocturnal activities such as table setting. Then shit gets deadly.
While it seems like it's going to be a film about the pharmaceutical industry and dangerous cover-ups performed at the expense of public health, Side Effects takes an unexpected turn into the Hitchcockian to focus on Banks' personal investigation of the matter, because something about this whole ordeal just doesn't sit right. In other words, it becomes the type of thriller where Jude Law gets obsessed with uncovering the truth at expense of his job, family and responsibilities such as shaving. Which makes it sound generic, but even Zodiac does that and that movie's hot fire.
Side Effects is at first disappointing for quashing the hope that we'd get a movie that makes viewers think about their decision to deal with companies that offer pills that "fix" you in some way. Not that there's anything necessarily wrong with medication, but that's a lot of trust to put in a large collective of strangers, and it's worth exploring what happens when that kind of trust is broken from the perspectives of several parallel narratives that only kind of intersect. But the movie isn't interested in doing that, and the only thing that's betrayed is my own foolish expectations.
What Side Effects is, it turns out, is a hybrid Soderbergh work, as it combines elements of his topical thrillers with more populist work to create an engrossing pop thriller for adults. The film opens with Tatum's character being escorted out of prison a la Ocean's Eleven and the whole story is reminiscent of screenwriter Scott Z. Burn's first Soderbergh collaboration, The Informant!, where we believe a character for a majority of the film only to find out we've been hoodwinked. It's an impressive feat, seeing a master director like Soderbergh use a majority of his established toolkit to make a straight-faced piece of entertainment.
Part of that aforementioned believability comes from the performances. Jude Law's a fine actor who's easy to write off as a merely a pretty British man (though the receding hairline makes even that difficult these days) and he does good work here. His job is easy because he's the protagonist and as long as his performance is pretty good we can be drawn to his plight. On the other hand, Rooney Mara owns this movie as Emily. Originally a role for Blake Lively**, Emily is the key to the success of this film, because we have to believe in her at all times as she pulls off an extreme range of "normal," depressed, detached, medicated and other, more spoiler-worthy emotions. Mara hasn't been in many major roles so far***, but she's pretty much ruled in all of the diverse roles she's been given since earning our attention with The Social Network. Additionally, Catherine Zeta Jones plays a woman in glasses in what I my research tells me is the second of her 2013 roles that involve her wearing glasses in thrillers. She wears them well.
It's likely that, in Steven Soderbergh's filmography, Side Effects will be regarded as minor work. Which is okay — minor works have their appeal, and not everybody can be P.T. Fucking Anderson — but those who venture to check out Side Effects won't be disappointed by the breezy but entertaining Hitchcockian thriller Soderbergh and Burns have put together here.
*Who at one point sports a criminally distracting fedora.
**Translation: at one point this movie was going to be TERRIBLE.
***Before The Social Network, she was in the Nightmare on Elm Street remake, apparently? I saw that movie and let me tell you, there's a reason my brain did not store any knowledge of her being in it.
Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions) and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his Tumb
lr. His webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki, updates twice a week.