Side Effects (2013)
Man, am I gonna miss Steven Soderbergh.
Side Effects is about a young woman who’s living the good life until the day her husband goes to jail for insider trading. Five years later, her husband gets out, and as they try to pick up the pieces, she slowly starts losing her grip. Next thing you know, she’s driving her car into a wall, and when she wakes up in a hospital, she’s introduced to a psychiatrist. Rather than commit her, the psychiatrist tries to help this poor girl by writing her prescriptions in the hope of finding the right fit. So after several failed attempts, a miracle drug is found, and with the occasional sleepwalk being the only real drawback, life starts returning to normal. Her marriage gets better, the psychiatrist gets more work, and everything is just grand until tragedy suddenly strikes.
If it weren’t for Steven Soderbergh, this here would have been completely off my radar. Not only was I jaded by its unfortunate February release date – one of the worst moviegoing months there is – but I can’t be the only one who could barely even tell what this movie was about from the trailer. It just looked like the kind of movie that would come out in February, and that, dear readers, is just no bueno. But even if it had come out ten months from now, I wasn’t exactly a Jude Law fan to begin with, and I was still pretty skeptical that Channing Tatum could maintain this miraculous reinvention of his from last year into this one. And how about that boring-ass title and glaring contest of a poster? Certainly not helping matters any.
What can I say, movies where pharmaceutical companies are the “bad guy” have never really done it for me. But like I said, Steven Soderbergh was directing it, and at the end of the day, that was all the convincing I needed.
I don’t care if it’s porn stars playing call girls or male strippers on parade, Steven Soderbergh will make it work; and if there was anyone who could assure me that this snafu of a marketing campaign was not to be trusted, it was him. The good news is that Soderbergh doesn’t disappoint, so much so that I’m really struggling over whether I should just get it over with and bump that Verdict up to a 9. Not to mention that the said shitty marketing job actually wound up working in this movie’s favor. The excruciatingly bad news, on the other hand, is that this is apparently Steven Soderbegh’s last movie.
Really hope I’m not bursting anyone’s bubble with that last sentence, but alas, that is the word on the street. I’m praying to all that’s good and just in this world that I’m dead wrong about it, because if this is the kind of quality we’re going to be deprived of, it’s enough to make a movie nerd weep. Just think of what you’re doing to poor Channing, Steve! Pray for Channing, people.
So with that being said, what is it about the way Soderbergh handles this that has me so goddamn uppity about the guy? Well as much as I’m making it sound like he deserves all the freaking credit, the success of Side Effects is the result of a team effort.
As for the first Act, it’s interesting enough. It sets the stage, it’s occasionally surprising, and it’s hard to tell what direction we’re being taken in as the plot just initially revolves around Mara Rooney reacting to prescriptions. The first Act isn’t the best Act, but it does give Mara Rooney a whole lot of leeway to do her thing. Like most folks, I only really know her from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and while her character’s demeanor here wasn’t much of a stretch in comparison, damn, if she doesn’t know how to pull it off. As a girl who’s being hopped up on one experimental drug after another, Rooney knows how to sell it. She really seems straight-up medicated, like she really is wandering around in this “poisonous fog bank” she keeps talking about, and it’s certainly something to watch.
But as good as Rooney is, it’s not until the second Act that her already-convincing performance starts operating on a new level and things in general get really, really interesting. But unfortunately, these said developments are so damn interesting that to discuss them in detail would be spoiling all the fun. As a result, this is the part of the review where, for reasons you can thank me for later, things are gonna get vague. Bear with me though.
Once the second Act kicks off with a proper kick to the brain, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that most people watching will start raising logical suspicions. They immediately came to mind for yours truly, and I couldn’t help but worry that I had the rest of the plot pegged. The funny thing is that, in a sense, my concerns weren’t contradicted, but the way it all plays out from that point forward is just so unusually smart and compelling that I shortly forgot whatever it was I had been worrying about. And this is where the script by Scott Z. Burns comes into play.
Now, this is the third movie that Burns and Soderbergh have joined forces on, and you can chalk that up as casualty No. 2 as a result of Soderbergh’s early retirement. If Contagion alone was any indicator, Burns knows the drill when it comes to moving a story along and intelligently steering a plot. He’s good when it comes to dialogue, he’s good when it comes to coming up with premises that sound like they’re ripped right out of the hot sheets, but character development, now that’s his bread and butter.
The more we get to know these characters and the more we’re preparing ourselves for their next move, Burns keeps throwing unforeseen wrenches in the works, time and again concealing their true colors with each inspired encounter. Folks, this here is a cinematic game of chess, the kind of which would make Deep Blue nod its processor in surprised approval. And while it never hurts when such a well-written and well-plotted script is completely unexpected to begin with, exceeding expectations is just a bonus in this case. And while there is a bit at the end that felt a tad redundant when it comes to putting all the cards on the table, it’s a minor complaint that redeems itself rather quickly.
And did I mention that this now marks the second time I’ve really liked Jude Law in a movie (the first being Contagion)? For god’s sake, Steven, think of the repercussions!
Anyhow, I’d really be interested to hear what someone in the medical/pharmaceutical field thought about this movie, because my expertise on this stuff is laughable at best. But by the same token, I’d be somewhat puzzled if someone wrote this movie off for its portrayal of medicine, treatment, or even mental illness. Ultimately, the meds and their prescribers come secondary to the characters and their motivations, and it’s hard to imagine someone viewing this as an attack of sorts on the medical field in turn. So in case you were wondering, there you go.
Well, boys and girls, if this is in fact Steven Soderbergh’s swan song, then this review is as bittersweet as they come. By no means is Side Effects a career-defining opus, and to be honest, it is a bit strange that he decided to go out on this of all notes. But then again, it’s a damn good movie, a movie that many a film maker would be proud to have on their resume, and there’s a lot about it that’s unmistakably Soderbergh at that. It wasn’t the movie I was expecting, and it wasn’t the swan song I was expecting either, but hey, if he was gonna go out on any kind of note, at least he went and made it a high one.
Never forget, kids. Never forget.