Film Review: Side Effects

Steven Soderbergh's (supposed) swan song as a feature film director is less a 'Contagion'-like topical thriller about the dangers of pharmaceuticals than it is a crisp but low-voltage neo-noir where drugs are only part of the story.

It’s hard to find a character (female, particularly) in Side Effects who hasn’t taken a prescribed antidepressant of one kind or another. When Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) is spotted by a friend of her husband’s crying at a party, she immediately suggests a drug that once helped her out. At the office, a depressed and nauseated Emily rushes to the bathroom; “Those made me sick, too,” commiserates her boss. Of the several psychiatrists on view, few of them appear to operate as anything beyond highly specialized pill dispensers. (In a desperate moment, one of the doctors begs another for a few Adderalls—you know, just to focus.) Although it’s shot mostly in bright, sharp, spring colors, the yellowish filter and off-kilter camera angles give the entire film a haze of unreality, as though seen through the fog of multiple selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors battling for control. Everyone’s on something.

The film’s ad campaign hinted at something vaguely related to Contagion, playing up the fact that both movies share a director (Soderbergh) and screenwriter (Scott Z. Burns), and that they are structured around a specific modern-day fear. While that pandemic film was more a fully realized, flesh-and-blood fictional story than it was a docudrama, Side Effects is really a sleekly constructed noir where the pharmaceutical topicality is mostly backdrop.

Taylor is a 28-year-old graphic designer who looks somewhat adrift in her Manhattan apartment. She is awaiting the return of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum), sentenced to prison four years before for insider trading. The film starts up just before his release, a day she’s eagerly awaiting. Once he’s out, though, she seems unable to control her depression. The crying at work is one thing; ramming her car head-on into a wall is another. Taken to the hospital, she’s examined by a psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). He’s concerned about her suicidal tendencies, but takes Emily’s word that she’ll start coming in for therapy and take her medications, so he lets her go.

At first, Side Effects looks like it’s going to be Emily’s story, following her through the withering exhaustion of adjusting medications and dealing with the increasingly horrendous conditions they cause. That’s up until the point when a crime is committed, and the story shifts to Banks, who must explain to an ever-widening circle of questioners—including a sly and cat-like Catherine Zeta-Jones as an earlier doctor of Emily’s—why he gave Emily what he did. Somebody should have read the fine print.

From there on, it’s a game of shifting narratives and re-examined assumptions that contains more than a couple of decoys. In other words, it’s the kind of film where at some point somebody is going to say the wrong thing to a person secretly wearing a recording device. With its glow of luxury living emanating from high-paying pharmaceutical consulting gigs and all the overmedicated characters, there is definitely a pointed critique here of the corporate drug complex. But long before the conclusion, those concerns are (wisely) sublimated to the service of its ultimately quite enjoyable mousetrap plot.

Soderbergh has claimed that this is going to be his last feature film. (Anything is possible, of course—he also hinted at that after finishing Che in 2008, but he’s knocked out another seven features since then.) It’s a curious choice for a concluding film. But perhaps that is part of the point here. Instead of straining for a great and career-defining epic, he’s made a cool and professional piece of work along the lines of 2012’s Haywire that succeeds primarily in highlighting just how few smart and unassuming genre films are being made these days. As such, it’s a classy farewell.