Movie review by Greg Carlson
WARNING: The following review reveals key plot information. Read only if you have seen “Side Effects.”
The politics of Big Pharma front a wicked, sleazy homage to psychosexual thrillers in Steven Soderbergh’s smartypants divertissement “Side Effects,” an enjoyable genre workout that gleefully mashes up Alfred Hitchcock and Joe Eszterhas without batting an eye. Fooling the audience into believing the movie’s point-of-view will favor the mental health struggles of Rooney Mara’s Emily Taylor, Soderbergh cunningly reveals that Jude Law’s Dr. Jonathan Banks is the film’s real fulcrum. Working from a script by frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns, Soderbergh, as usual, keeps the gears turning so efficiently it isn’t until the credits roll that you begin to wonder how badly you’ve been hoodwinked.
Emily’s husband Martin (Channing Tatum) emerges from a four-year prison sentence for insider trading anxious to reclaim his marriage and his career. Emily struggles with the changes, and soon after Martin’s release, steers her car into the wall of a parking garage in an apparent suicide attempt. Psychiatrist Banks begins seeing Emily, prescribing a series of ineffectual anti-depressants and consulting with Emily’s previous doctor, Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), who suggestively says, “I think seeing a man will help her.” Banks’ interest in his new patient, complicated by suggestions both subtle and curious, raises the ire of Banks’ wife and the suspicions of the viewer.
Soderbergh’s best directorial instincts serve “Side Effects” in ways parallel to many of his recent titles, including “Contagion,” “Magic Mike,” and even “Haywire.” He never takes things too seriously, even when he is directing what is presumably drama. He never shows overt contempt for the characters – both decent and villainous – that work hard to attain their objectives. His sense of structure nearly always points toward a craftsman who values meticulous pacing and timing, and the division of “Side Effects,” marked by the surprise on-screen murder of an important character, echoes the gambit of “Psycho” with diabolical precision. Right in the middle of it all is Mara, effectively cast in the movie’s plummiest role. Is Emily unhinged or cagey? Both at once?
One does not even need to have read/seen “The Celluloid Closet” to recognize the “evil lesbian” rhetoric that (mis)informs characters in all kinds of films. Given Soderbergh’s tendency to mess with his audience, there is plenty of room for debate as to whether either Mara’s or Zeta-Jones’ characters are homosexual. Burns’ screenplay suggests the strong possibility that both women might be feigning same-sex attraction to manipulate the situation. Even so, this particular class of femme fatale stereotype, present in “Black Swan,” “Basic Instinct,” “Single White Female,” “Bound” “Wild Things,” “Chloe,” and numerous others, may be the least imperative ruse in the movie’s playbook.
More fascinating than the sexual depravity and desperation is the movie’s incorporation of several classic bait-and-switch traps, including hidden recording devices, photo blackmail, double jeopardy escape plans, threats of electroshock, and one bizarre instance in which the reaction to a placebo is either a tour de force performance or an exhibition of the most disturbing psychopathy. The corporate drug industry milieu receives just the right dose of the filmmakers’ criticism, from the comical, bogus promotional Ablixa website (“Rare side effects may also include confusion…”) to the way in which the chemically altered state of the union attempts to solve every problem by developing a pill to pop.