Review: Side Effects
PLOT: A man comes home after four years of prison to find his wife suffering from an extreme bout of depression. When she goes on a new prescription drug to alleviate the symptoms, she quickly goes from bad to worse.
REVIEW: Don't take a whole lot of stock in that very brief plot synopsis you see above: SIDE EFFECTS is never what it really seems to be about. It's one of those movie that likes to keep you guessing, even if it's at its own detriment. It would rather make your mind reel with "WTF? I didn't see that coming!" revelations than wrap you in a cohesive narrative you can count on. I don't fault it for trying to be nimble with its twists, but there is such a thing as one (or two or three) twist too many.
SIDE EFFECTS starts out as a subtle psychological thriller about the unraveling of a mind. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) initially seems relieved to have her husband (Channing Tatum) back home after he spent four years in prison for insider trading. Their life can begin to get back to normal - or attempt to anyway. Her once-comfortable life in ritzy Connecticut has been downgraded to living in a (still pretty nice) apartment in Manhattan, she works at a graphic design studio, and the couple really does appear to love one another. But a cloud fogs everything for Emily: depression has gripped her once again - she's been a victim to it many a time - and it refuses to go away no matter how many drugs she takes. One day, she finds herself driving straight into a wall, unsure if she's doing it intentionally or not. Things are getting very bad. And that's when Dr. Banks comes in.
Dr. Banks (Jude Law) has a boatload of anti-depressions he's willing to prescribe, and Emily seems to trust him. He eventually gets around to trying a new drug on the market out on her after talking with her former psychiatrist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) whose slightly sinister, seductive demeanor suggests that no one ought to take her advice, but nevermind that. The drug Banks prescribes has a desired effect at first, but soon its, yes, side effects begin to reveal themselves, and Emily's life takes a tragic turn. And then all hell breaks loose in ways I'm not even prepared to describe.
Directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by Scott Z. Burns, the duo who last collaborated on CONTAGION, SIDE EFFECTS is not the anti-pharmaceutical screed you may assume it to be. Soderbergh has always defied convention, so it's not surprising that he takes what may on the surface look like a movie that points a damning finger at greedy companies and shrinks who dole out pills with little regard for their actual effects on a person and turns it into something of a glossy B-movie with Hitchcockian aspirations. The film has the sleek, unpredictable motions of a snake, moving this way and that without regard for your expectations, first going in this direction to masquerade as a solemn drama about a woman's inability to cope with everyday life before going in that direction to act as a "framed man tries to prove his innocence" potboiler before losing all control and slapping you with about three game-changing twists in its third act. You sit there and admire the movie's ability to turn on a dime, but admiration and enjoyment aren't the same thing, and SIDE EFFECTS has a cold, clinical veneer that keeps you at arm's length.
Some viewers will likely get off on some of the more sordid notes SIDE EFFECTS hits as it nears its conclusion; the film begins to resemble a primetime soap with its multiple revelations and melodrama. However, it loses its early, eerie appeal when it decides to go off the deep end. The film's first 30 minutes or so have an entrancing quality, feeling a bit like ROSEMARY's BABY with pharmaceuticals instead of satanists, but the movie can't sustain this power once it starts tripping over itself to surprise you at every turn. Soderbergh and Burns have crafted a movie that really needs to be seen a second time to fully grasp what happens when and how and to whom, but it all seems so showy and manufactured that you're not likely to want to give it a second chance.
Still, to his credit, Soderbergh has cast this crazy little movie just right (as he usually does), and the cast necessitates that you keep your eyes glued to the screen. Rooney Mara is perfect in her role; her face doesn't betray much, her wide eyes seem to mask emotion rather than relay it. She can play wounded little girl and icy femme fatale almost in the same frame. Jude Law, as always, is the very definition of sophisticated charmer with a tinge of bad boy rogue; these qualities are so inherent in him that he barely needs to do anything as a doctor who goes from professional to frustrated victim of circumstance and back again. Catherine Zeta-Jones oozes sex appeal here in a way she hasn't in quite a while (not that I've seen anyway), though her character's importance in the final act of the film is part of its descent into over-the-top soap opera. And Channing Tatum just has to stand there and play handsome, contrite hubby, and he's pretty good at that.