Side Effects is the perfect response to Broken City and Promised Land, two films that offered great potential but drowned themselves in shallowness, eschewing dimension and complexity to make the bad guys really bad while taking their message as inherently superior. In short, they were two films that purported a moral they never got around to discussing. Side Effects does not.
And it is not largely because it’s not an “issue” film — it’s a thriller, and the mystery is compelling, the performances are convincing, and the end is satisfying for its distinct lack of finger wagging. Soderbergh keeps the story unceasingly human, and when the guilty party is revealed, their reasons and actions are sound. Names are given faces — Soderbergh does not hide behind the trope of a faceless evil corporation, as the trailer would let you believe.
Jude Law plays Dr. Jonathan Banks, a psychiatrist who takes it upon himself to treat the disturbed Emily (Rooney Mara) after she slams her car into the wall of a parking garage. Her husband Martin is recently paroled for fraud, and his return has sparked a suicidal turn in Emily. Banks puts her on a new drug, and things get much worse.
That’s about as far as I can go without spoiling anything– Banks gets embroiled in the consequences and tries to figure out what the Hell is going on.
Soderbergh has an eye for setting a scene — clouding nearly every frame indoors and out with fog, and yet it’s not to suggest a looming conspiracy, rather it’s the befuddlement of Banks himself.
He’s completely unaware of how serious his situation is — when Emily becomes a news sensation, Banks is more annoyed that his other patients ask whether he’s prescribed them the same drug; he doesn’t grasp why the press wants to interview him; he doesn’t notice the toll it’s taking on his family or why his colleagues won’t speak to him or why he lost a consulting job.
It’s a great throwback to the neo-noirs of the ’70s, like The Conversation and The Long Goodbye, where the heroes amble through the case, half unaware of what’s going on, how much everyone else knows, and never destined to be right on track purely through their own character faults.
And yet when he learns a small piece of information, he can get just as nasty as any of those ’70s guys. A few years ago there seemed to be a push to sell Law as the new Michael Caine — the one who could switch from unassuming to mean cold fuck in a snake’s breath — and there’s a flash of that in Law’s performance. He’s a bit better behaved than someone like Carter, but I think the lessons sunk in. He’s clever and vindictive and angry that someone screwed him over, and moving from the cheery guy who likes helping people to that so seamlessly once more shows that Law is worthy of the Caine mantle.
Mara is another wonderful performer — I’m not sure if “wounded” can describe a character actor, but no one plays it better than she. Nor does anyone know how to better turn that fear into sensuality, a trait Soderbergh takes full advantage of in two very sexy scenes.
Catherine Zeta-Jones also plays sexy, which is a characterization that seems out of place. Her role doesn’t require her to seduce everyone n sight, but that’s how she performs, and yet, by the end of the film, I didn’t have a problem with it.
Side Effects is a welcome change of pace from the lackluster dramas we’ve had over the past few months. Outside of a few sporadic pacing problems, it nevertheless keeps things interesting, mostly from the fiery performances of Law and Mara. It’s not Soderbergh’s most ambitious, nor as ambitious as the films that inspired it, but it’d make a fine first feature in a double-bill.