Side Effects

A twisted tale

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

In what he insists is his final big-screen feature film, at least for the foreseeable future, Steven Soderbergh employs his dramatic knowhow and superior craftsmanship to initially lure you into a story that you ultimately can’t buy into at all in Side Effects. Screenwriter Scott Z. Burns’ story of a young wife whose well-being and behavior are seemingly impaired by a succession of prescription drugs has the veneer of a serious expose of a perceived epidemic of doctor-approved drug use (Burns also wrote Soderbergh’s recent mass-infection thriller Contagion). But in trying to merge this alarmist theme with an old-fashioned murder mystery, the filmmakers throw at least one plot-twist sucker-punch too many, leaving the viewer with an “Oh, come on” reaction to the entire film.

Depending upon exactly how you count, Soderbergh has directed about 27 feature films in the 24 years since he burst on the scene with sex, lies & videotape, a remarkable output given the two or three years it takes most major directors to develop and finish a project. He still has the HBO Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra in store for later this year, but if anyone deserves a vacation, it’s fair to say he does.

And all the better if it will serve to spare him minor projects such as this, which more than anything represents an exercise in strategic withholding and disclosure of information to the audience. When the surprises are sprung, there might be momentary gasps of surprise, but the impact is nothing compared to the resentment that stems from being blindsided by major information so carefully held back.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) has spent four years in New York City waiting for her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to be released from prison; he was convicted of insider trading, their lush life ruined in the process. She’s been on antidepressants and, after an apparent suicide attempt, is put on a new drug by well-meaning shrink Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who consults her former doctor Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) about his new patient’s condition and background.

Martin has assured Emily: “I can get us back to where we were.” But upon his release, something doesn’t feel quite right between them—and, quite out of the blue at the 35-minute mark, one of the main characters does a Janet Leigh in Psycho and gets the blade.

At the ensuing trial, issues relating to memory loss, irresponsible medical treatment and possible insanity come into play. Jonathan’s professional standing takes a big hit, as does his marriage to a beautiful wife (Vinessa Shaw) no one would want to lose. There’s a lot of trade talk about the benefits and side effects of various drugs that might prove fascinating to those interested in such matters and boring to those who are not. But a good deal of the second half is devoted to Jonathan’s downward spiral due to his involvement in this unsavory case, with the uncommonly attractive actors providing by far the paramount reason for any sustained interest.

If the main parts were played by nonentities or common-looking performers, few viewers would stick with this, given the story’s unappealing underpinnings. Mara’s moodiness has an allure and, in a very different sort of role from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, she remains intriguing to watch at all times. Law, who stood out in Contagion, also commands attention, but it’s sometimes hard to watch his character so selflessly digging himself deeper into a hole from which it will be very hard to emerge. Tatum, who shone in Soderbergh’s summer hit Magic Mike, is solid, while Zeta-Jones, in her third film for the director, effectively wears her don’t-mess-with-me-or-you’ll-regret-it face.

The film’s final twist feels borderline over-the-top risible, though one thing is certain: It never would have been possible in the old Hollywood, which otherwise seems to be a source for the sort of twisty storytelling attempted.

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