Looking back at past years, it seems that I’m usually not compelled to get back in the theater after the dust from the year-end Oscar season has settled until about March, when films actually start to rise to the level of passable. But much like last February with Haywire, Steven Soderbergh has given us another air-tight genre picture with Side Effects, the film that will supposedly will be his last theatrical feature before his alleged retirement from directing. Now I don’t know if I really believe all this retirement stuff, but either way Side Effects reaffirms Soderbergh’s strengths as one of the most consistent and sure-handed directors around.
At first, Side Effects appears to be a film that tackles the effects of the pharmaceutical industry and how it affects people suffering from depression. It stars an excellent Rooney Mara as one such depressive, who after a suicide attempt is given medical guidance by her therapist (Jude Law), who prescribes a new drug known as Ablixa to her in the hopes of calming her unstable state of mind. She starts having unwieldy mood swings after a while, and then let’s just say the film takes a bit of a one-eighty in terms of tone, going from what seems like a social-commentary film about addiction to more of a pulpy thriller.
However, thanks to an intricately plotted script by frequent Sodherberg screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, this change in tone and it’s evolving consequences are always engaging and seemingly justified. Maybe in the hands of another director this type of film might seem a little too trashy and manipulative for its own good. But there’s something about Soderbergh’s very particular and calculated approach to directing that makes a film that’s undeniably entertaining also feel far more intelligent and thought-provoking than it has any right to be.
And on top of that, the performances are consistently strong, with Rooney Mara giving an eerily assured performance in opposition of Jude Law playing a guy who’s got a few demons of his own. Law’s never been an actor I’ve ever been that big a fan of, but I went for him in Side Effects, maybe because it’s hard not to root for a guy who gets fucked over so hard during the course of the film. And in addition, Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones are fine as well, even if they’re ultimately just pawns in the film’s sneaky plotting. So really just a well-made film on all accounts, even though I’m not sure if it does quite enough to disprove Steven Soderbergh’s knack for making movies that are just a few cuts above mildly pleasing.