Side Effects Review
by Daniel Rester
Side Effects is supposedly director Steven Soderbergh’s final feature film. But no one knows if this will end up being true, as the director has hinted at retirement before. Either way, Soderbergh has had one hell of a career up to this point. The man has given us Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), Traffic (2000), the remake of Ocean’s 11 (2001), and Magic Mike (2012), just to name a few of his films. Soderbergh is one of the top filmmakers of his generation, being both prolific and versatile — delivering fine work as a director, producer, cinematographer, and editor, among other things. He will be missed if he does end up retiring. But if that is the case, at least he will be leaving on a strong note with Effects.
Effects is one of those tricky films that has any sensible person not giving away too many details when describing the plot to another. On the surface level the film is about a woman named Emily (Rooney Mara) who goes through a depression after her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), is released from prison after going away for insider trading. After one major event, Emily seeks the help of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes her to a new (fictional) drug called Ablixa – meant to help lessen depression and anxiety. And then come the side effects…and the end of my plot description, as I would be entering spoiler-heavy territory.
Scott Z. Burns scripted Effects, and the film marks the third collaboration between him and Soderbergh – following The Informant! (2009) and Contagion (2011). Burns has essentially managed to script a workable genre-blender with Effects, while also giving it a dose of commentary. The film plays like a medical drama at first, but gradually forms into a Hitchcockian-like thriller-mystery by the end. Burns also lays out thought-provoking ideas about medicines and their side effects, doctor-patient relationships, the wheeling and dealing behind prescription drugs, and various disorders and sicknesses. He also knows how to juggle the emotional and intellectual complexities of the various characters, injecting each of them with both likeable aspects and flaws. Burns’ screenplay is a twisty and intelligent one, refreshingly adult and satisfying until it becomes a bit too convoluted towards its finish.
Soderbergh handles Burns’ screenplay with assurance. As a director, Soderbergh really knows how to guide a cast of skilled performers without ever having them be showy. Instead, he rather allows all of his actors to shine while also complimenting the material. The director also knows how to apply different kinds of looks and feelings for the various types of scenes in Burns’ script, injecting the right amount of drama and suspense. He shapes each scene well as a director, and then brings them to life even more with his cinematography and editing (under pseudonyms) – which is also aided by Thomas Newman’s change-of-pace music score. With Effects, Soderbergh’s crafting includes muted colors and occasional orange glows, lots of low angles, some focus-changing shots, and some of the director’s other trademarks. Also, the beginning of the film features an outside shot that is a welcome nod to Psycho (1960). Overall, Soderbergh’s visual style here is interesting and occasionally beautiful — and doesn’t block out Burns’ writing.
Burns and Soderbergh also have the benefit of working with a talented cast. Mara and Law are both superb in the lead roles. They are both playing characters that are layered, believably human, and ultimately hard to root for (as twists and turns reveal new things about each of them). Mara knows how to be simultaneously fragile and mysterious, whilst also presenting a quiet intensity. And Law brings his A-game, expertly presenting a doctor who could use a bit of help himself from time to time. Tatum is also very good in his supporting role as Martin, again impressing under the direction of Soderbergh (he did great in last year’s Magic Mike). Also rounding out the cast is Catherine Zeta-Jones, sexy and terrific as another doctor character.
Effects isn’t some of Soderbergh’s greatest work, but it is still damn good. The movie works excellently in its first half, but by the second half it loses steam and presents some of its answers (some of them pretty far-fetched, others conventional) in a murky way. The film is also a tad bland at times, with a few scenes that could have easily been cut out. But for the most part Effects is a smart and engrossing film, and one that stings and provokes thought. It’s well-written, well-acted, and well-directed, and a fine film for Soderbergh to go out on.
Rating: 3 out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: B+).