By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
Steven Soderbergh might be Hollywood’s most versatile filmmaker. With over twenty feature films on his resume, spanning multiple genres, Soderbergh plans to retire soon. Following the release of his latest theatrical feature Side Effects, the director will finish post-production work on his television movie Behind the Candleabra, based on the nonfiction novel by Liberace’s lover Scott Thorson. Once he has completed this, the world will have lost a prolific and talented filmmaker. With a mix of independent art house pieces as well as bigger budget popcorn movies, it seems as if Soderbergh could fit in comfortably on the set of any film. It makes me sad that the man has chosen retirement so soon, because whenever his name has been attached to any upcoming movies, my anticipation has increased exponentially.
His final theatrical feature, a Hitchcockesque thriller taking place within the pharmaceuticals/healthcare industry and culture, does not disappoint. With a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh’s collaborator on Contagion, Side Effects is a tense and engaging film which slyly offers a commentary on pharmaceutical companies, mental health, and greed, but doesn’t get so caught up in its preaching that it fails to deliver grade A entertainment.
The movie focuses on Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) and her psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). Banks begins treating Taylor for depression and anxiety.Taylor’s husband (Channing Tatum), after completing a stint in prison for insider trading, has been released and the whole ordeal has not been easy on her. After trying several medications without any success, Banks prescribes her a new medication with the brand name Ablixa. As with some medicines, Ablixa does not come without any adverse effects. However this time, when the adverse effect involves a murder, Dr. Taylor’s reputation, as does the manufacturer of the med, comes under fire.
As with Contagion and The Informant!, Burns and Soderbergh make a first rate team with this third collaboration. Burns and Soderbergh tell their tale effectively, intelligently and fairly realistically without using any cheap, corny or cliché tricks to thrill their audience. The story does feel like a modern day Hitchcock picture, but not quite as glossy and colorful under Soderbergh’s filtered lens. In fact, the movie looks dark and icy cold, about as chilly as a clinical psychiatrist easily peddling pills to a patient in need of more hands-on counseling. My only complaint really is the fact that I found the truth behind the “murder mystery” predictable. I didn’t find the other details as foreseeable and Burns does provide some additional twists and other unexpectedly juicy details that totally caught me off guard.
Like most Soderbergh films, Side Effects has a great cast who all deliver fine performances. Jude Law performs wonderfully as Dr. Taylor, a descent and actually caring psychiatrist, but a doctor who falls easily into the trappings of a cold and greedy industry. If this had been a Hitchcock movie, his character probably would have been portrayed by Jimmy Stewart. With his reputation and career on the line, his life seems to be spiraling out of control and he grows obsessed with discovering the truth behind the murder. Rooney Mara offers a mostly consistent performance as Emily, but does have a few moments here and there which feel a bit forced and unnatural. Catherine Zeta Jones does a fantastic job as Dr. Victoria Siebert, another psychiatrist, but a less scrupulous one at that.
So it pains me a little to complete this review. If Soderbergh never gets bored with his retirement or has little inspiration to return to work, this will probably be the last theatrical feature of his I will review. Not all of his films have been winners, but enough of them have for film fans to associate the name Soderbergh with quality cinema. His finest contributions have been and will continued to be studied and analyzed for many generations to come.