So can someone point to the exact moment when Steven Soderbergh was replaced by the Brian De Palma double? Side Effects is supposedly the director's final theatrical film, with HBO's Liberace biopic Behind the Candelabra being his ultimate swansong. As such, one would expect the acclaimed, notoriously efficient auteur to deliver a wallop of a finale, hitting hard against the prescription drug industry with the same precision he explored the CDC in Contagion. While there are elements of that, it becomes apparent before long that he's really interested in salacious and tawdry erotica.
That's not to say Soderbergh is coasting his way through Side Effects. Nothing could be further from the truth, and his partnership with writer Scott Z. Burns remains as effective as ever at presenting a present-day concern, in this case the overuse of pharmaceutical drugs and their lasting effects. Only it quickly becomes background noise and merely a backdrop for sex and mind games amongst a number of really screwed up people.
Soderbergh turns his slick and stylish eye towards Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a depressed and anxious admin assistant who grows only more nervous when her husband (Channing Tatum) returns home from prison. Convicted of insider trading, he once had them living the high life, which kept her depression mostly at bay. Now with him home, and all the pressure on her to make a living, she's regressed into old, suicidal habits. It's clear from the very first time we see Emily that she's a lost soul, aimless against the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. Her increasing turmoil begins slowly, from crying jags, to odd behavior at work, culminating in an attempt on her own life.
Obviously something is wrong, so enter Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), an overworked hot-shot psychiatrist who takes on her case, prescribing her a litany of drugs to help find just the right one. What they do is pound her with a number of different side effects, with nothing really addressing the overall problem. Banks finally breaks down and gives her an experimental new anti-depressant, suggested to him by the sexy and enigmatic Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The drugs seem to work, but the side effects are more than just dangerous, they turn out to be lethal.
Like those late-night ads for all the drugs with mysterious names, Side Effects does an amazing job hiding its true nature, and as such it's a film you'll want to enter with as little information as possible. Initially it seems as if Emily is going to be the story's focus, but eventually it's the plight of Dr. Banks that takes center stage as his practice is destroyed and he comes under a shroud of scrutiny. Is he really to blame for the violence that takes place? Or is there something more afoot?
Eventually we start to figure out that everything is not all that it seems, and the film becomes one where nobody can be fully trusted. This is one of those films where every single line of dialogue has a meaning, then another meaning, and possibly a third as perspectives shift with each new revelation. There are an incredible number of twists and turns, which are nearly all compelling until Burns piles on perhaps one too many. It's the first part of the story that functions the best as we are walked through the ins and outs of Emily and Dr. Banks' lives, where it seems everyone is on some sort of drug. And if they aren't, well then they ought to be. While there's nothing novel about what's being said about the over-reliance on prescription meds in our culture, or the pervasiveness of the pharmaceutical industrial complex, it's subtly woven into the story so as to keep us engaged.
Soderbergh is at the height of his powers here, and it's largely due to him that Side Effects remains compelling even as it falls prey to genre tropes. Other than Mara, he's old hat at working with the bulk of the cast, and he's smart enough to keep the attention focused on their expressions throughout. It's in the eyes, their melancholic looks of sadness, and occasionally the fleeting flash of guilt or anger, that tells the real story buried beneath all the lies. All of the cast throw themselves into their characters, but Law is especially vital in the best performance he's had in years. He seems to do his best work when under Soderbergh's guidance and it's sad to think this may be the last time we have to see it. Burns' script piles on the twists and turns, with each new scrap of information unlocking more questions and disturbing answers. It goes too far, though, and for it to make any sense some serious pretzel-logic is called for.
There's still that nagging sense of disappointment that Soderbergh didn't attempt something more profound. It's to his credit that he was able to check the box on his resume next to "steamy erotic thriller", but Side Effects could have been so much bigger. Then again, maybe that was the point he was trying to make? Maybe he was showing us that no matter the material, he's always brought a certain level of excellence and professionalism.