Side Effects

Side Effects photo starrating-4stars.jpgThere is a growing obsession for a panacea for all ills that will make life better – or easier at least. Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects is a deceptively simple parable that exploits society’s reliance on pills as the basis for this top notch psychological thriller. Emily’s husband has recently gotten out of jail for insider trading and has returned home. Their once perfect life shattered 4 years ago. They are now left to reconstruct the pieces of their once idyllic existence from the ground up. Despite her husband’s release, Emily still suffers from depression. She even has suicidal thoughts. One day while sitting in her car in the garage of their apartment building, she stares at the brick wall ahead of her and drives full speed right into it. Enter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who consults with Emily after her suicide attempt. He’s a psychiatrist and begins seeing her to help treat her depression. He prescribes Ablixa, a new antidepressant drug. Initially she responds positively to the supposed miracle cure. Then she suffers some unexpected, you guessed it, side effects.

Director Steven Soderbergh is working from an original script by frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns (The Informant!, Contagion) Burns wisely captures the zeitgeist regarding our obsession with pharmaceuticals. The medication here in question here is called Ablixa, a fictional drug that could easily be a stand-in for Zoloft or Prozac or any other anti-depressant remedy in a pill. In a brilliant bit of marketing, there’s a clever viral video for Ablixa at http://www.tryablixa.com/ It features an ad that convincingly mimics the soothing music and happy people that are so often used to market medicine like this. You can even take a free evaluation of whether Ablixa is right of you. However the fact that it’s conducted by none other than Jude Law himself should clue you in that this is for entertainment purposes only.

And let’s talk about Jude Law. He’s extraordinary in Side Effects. As Emily’s psychiatrist, his character undergoes a sort of crisis of conscience at first. He’s responsible for prescribing a drug that has negative consequences on his patient’s well being. Just how responsible is he? The film addresses ethics, accountability and the legal system. Rooney Mara is at the center of the drama. I think this is quite possibly the most detailed performance we’ve seen from her yet. She’s a sympathetic soul for whom you feel compassion, but she’s also cold and aloof. She conveys a deeply nuanced character that becomes more complicated as the saga progresses. As Emily’s previous psychiatrist, Catherine Zeta-Jones provides delightful support in a role that taps into the kind of hammy exaggeration she clearly relishes. Channing Tatum is the husband.  He’s so busy out trying to re-establish his career again, his presence is less ubiquitous but still crucial to the narrative.

This nifty little thriller is a doozy. A slowly building, twisty little conundrum that exposes layers of intrigue that gradually get revealed just when you think you’ve got things figured out. It originates as sort of a cautionary tale regarding the dangers of prescription drugs, but the screenplay expands on that and then takes things in an entirely different direction. I won’t explain further because that would spoil the fun. While things are unfolding, an almost Hitchcockian scope is revealed. Admittedly, the plot developments really ask a lot of the audience.  A healthy suspension of disbelief is required to accept everything that this story puts forth. I might even go so far as to say they’re preposterous.  Yet it was so addictive, I didn’t mind any of that. Rooney Mara and Jude Law have an undeniable charisma that seize our attention whenever either one is on screen. I was entranced from beginning to end. They say this is Soderbergh’s “last” theatrical film. That would be a shame.  But one thing’s for sure. If that’s really the case, at least he went out with a bang.

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35 Responses to “Side Effects”

  1. Good review Mark. You never where it’s going to go and the twists and turns just keep on coming. That’s the whole fun of this movie and what made it so damn entertaining.

  2. Great review. I had no interest in this film until I started doing the blog circuit and reading all of the reviews. Yours definitely is wanting me to go out and see it sooner than later (I’ll still probably end up renting it) but good otherwise.

    It’s a shame this is Soderbergh’s last effort, as the man (still young) has plenty of more films in him. Either way, from what you wrote and what I’ve read, it seems to be a fitting conclusion to a great filmmaker’s career and a worthwhile movie to check out.

    • Without question, It’s the best film released in 2013 thus far.

      Whether the 50 year old Soderbergh is actually leaving directing for good or just taking a break remains to be seen. Either way, he’s an important filmmaker with some great films under his belt.

  3. **** MAJOR MAJOR SPOILERS ****
    (Highlight text below for spoiler.)

    You say that this movie is a “parable that exploits society’s reliance on pills.” It centers on a woman suffering from depression, but doesn’t the parable only work if the woman is actually suffering from depression? Isn’t the depression all just a ruse in the end? And, doesn’t that undermine the so-called parable? A better term might be that ‘Side Effects’ is a dramatic satire but even that’s undermined by the homophobia in this film. You’re right that it’s HItchcockian. For example, ‘Rope’ (1948) is a dramatic satire of sorts, but Hitchcock doesn’t it bury, or as you say layer, or even cloak it as something else. Hitchcock is as forthright as he can be given the Production Code of the 1940s.

    **** END SPOILERS ****

    • You make a valid point, but that’s precisely why I loved the film. It kept you guessing. Having a “cloaked” or unexpected storyline that changes is something I value highly in this predictable age. I don’t fault screenwriter Scott Z. Burns for it.

      I’ve purposefully kept my reply very ambiguous so as not to reveal a key plot point. Someone who hasn’t seen Side Effects should not read your response until after they have seen the film.

  4. Really good review Mark. Didn’t know till now that Soderbergh wants to throw in the towel. If this is it he is going out with us wrapped in it. Like a Venice Fly trap he lays the ground, lures us in the traps us to not get away. I was consumed by the film.

    • Me too.

      Soderbergh still has one film left, Behind the Candelabra with Michael Douglas as Liberace. It will air on HBO however and not as theatrical release.

      Whether this is a true retirement to focus on painting or merely a sabbatical, remains to be seen.

  5. Just saw this last night. Your review sums up everything quite well.

  6. Boy was this good. I love movies with twists. Kept my brain busy. Acting wad great! I want to mention Catherine Zita Jones , she was great, almost campy, but I loved her role. 4 stars

  7. Great review! Before it released I knew nothing about it but after all these good reviews I’m interested in seeing it.

  8. Looking forward to watching this one. Great review as always.

  9. I loved the portion of the film that focused on the pharmaceutical industry with its backdoor deals, kickbacks, and finger pointing when something goes wrong. I wish that the movie stuck with these themes because I felt like there was better social commentary there. Instead I was disappointed by what I thought were predictable, standard thriller themes. I agree that the performances are entertaining, specifically from Mara, Law, and Zeta-Jones. Mara gives a complex performance, arguably much more so than hers in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Law is subtle and grounded, yet still enjoyable. Zeta-Jones is hamming it up, but at least she’s having fun. Side Effects isn’t my favorite Soderbergh film, but definitely not a bad one for him to go out on if this indeed truly his last.

  10. Sorry for the late comment. I did read your review a few days ago, and I kept thinking, “Is this ‘Contagion Part 2’?” It sounds like it, especially since a) both are Soderbergh’s films that b) are set around the doctoring field. You’ve piqued my interest quite nicely.

  11. Great review! I’m definitely going to see this one but I think I’ll wait for DVD.

  12. Loved this review. Jude Law is extraordinary here, isn’t he? I go back and forth with his acting, but he definitely killed it in Side Effects. Likewise Rooney, who stole every one of her scenes, for completely different reasons.

    I certainly hope this isn’t Soderbergh’s final theatrical effort as well, but time will tell.

    PS, love the Ablixa site.

  13. Nicely written piece here. I had the hardest time trying to write a review for this, since this is one of those you have to carefully choose what to explain and what to leave out. I do love challenges, and this was a good one. I loved this film. And I loved Jude Law. Who doesn’t???

  14. Awesome review. How would you rank the cast?

  15. Great review, and I quite agree with you – the cast did an excellent job. Although, to be honest I didn’t find the ‘revelations’ and ‘twists’ in the film to be that mind blowing or breathtaking. In fact I think these were not ‘twists’ at all but a series of ‘confusions’ thrown in to save the film from sinking into boredom, which prevailed during the first half of the film. Legally absolutely ridiculous, I also think I am the only one to think that the film borrowed some key elements from ‘Malice’ with Nicole Kidman.

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