Cast: Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Chaning Tatum, Catherine Zeta-Jones
Running time: 106mins
The lowdown: Impossible to pigeon-hole director Steven Soderbergh follows the low fat latte froth and warmth of hen-party favourite Magic Mike with an altogether more bitter pill in Side Effects. Opening as a chilling examination of America’s dependency on pharmaceuticals to blow away mental storm clouds, a veer into film noir territory knocks off a few points making it merely a well-done thriller. Rooney Mara, Jude Law and Chaning Tatum head up this very 21st century drug movie.
The full verdict: Prior to release director Steven Soderbergh stated Side Effects would be his retirement from feature film directing, although more recent comments have downplayed retirement to a break from moviemaking.
Hopefully, this proves to be the case as Soderbergh remains a consistently innovative and daring director, jumping genres with the infectious glee of a kid playing hopscotch – from the heavyweight power of Traffic, to the forgettable gloss of the Ocean’s trilogy, to the tossed off action cool of Haywire.
And also because Side Effects, though slick, professional and smart, ultimately wastes a great first half with a second that slips into Hitchcockian formula (foreshadowed by an opening-shot homage to Psycho) that would be better served with Harrison Ford in the lead.
Before this though, Soderbergh and writer Scott Z. Burns (previous collaborator on The Informant! and Contagion) fashion a study of first world despair that really burrows beneath the skin.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake star Mara is extraordinary as Emily, conveying oceans of sadness through unnaturally calm speech and frozen facial expressions. Prone to depression, she struggles with the return from jail of her stockbroker husband Martin (Tatum, improving with every film) following a trading scandal.
After driving at high speed into a car park wall, Emily is placed in the care of Dr Banks (Law), who prescribes a cocktail of antidepressants in search of the magic combination that will banish her low mood, with Emily’s previous shrink Dr Siebert (Zeta-Jones) lending case history advice.
But, there are always side effects and here they are shockingly violent.
Initially this appears to be an acidly comic take on medication as the great quick-fix cure-all, wrapped up a the suggestion that in economically unstable times drugs lower inhibitions for violence rather than hippy togetherness.
But, as Soderbergh and Burns reveal their hand, the film becomes less interesting, boiling down to a cat-and-mouse nailbiter with trashy erotic thriller elements thrown in to prove no-one’s taking this too seriously.
A crying shame then as it undoes a lot of good work, and Soderbergh and Burns proved themselves expert at tapping into topical anxieties with the excellent Contagion.
There are still numerous joys to be had throughout: Soderbergh (acting as his own cinematographer and editor under the nom-de-cines Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard) shoots with off-centre framing and shallow focus, isolating characters from their surroundings and generating palpable dread and unease.
Even the brutally angled architecture and Thomas Newman’s atypically discordant guitar score (echoing that in Cronenberg’s Crash) seem to bully the main players as power shifts between and around them, as does the legal Kafkaesque nightmare of incarceration on grounds of ill health.
By no means a failure, however the feeling remains you were prescribed a psychotropic smart drug but instead received sugar water.