“Side Effects” is supposed to look like a Zoloft commercial, correct? Steven Soderbergh’s film, which I hope is not his last despite his hints, sustains a flat, picturesque aesthetic resembling a medicine ad in a magazine or on TV. It’s designed to make the characters appear phony or untrustworthy, but the unfortunate side effect, for lack of a better term, is that the whole film falls limp in the process.
That you can’t trust these people or their actions is about all the hint I can give you without treading in spoiler territory. It involves the months after Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released from a white-collar prison to his wife Emily (Rooney Mara). His presence, though loving and supportive, causes her to try and commit suicide shortly thereafter. A doctor named Jonathan (Jude Law) agrees to release her from the hospital on the condition that she come in for treatment and therapy, both of which will eventually lead to Emily’s mental breakdown, a lawsuit, some jail time and a conspiracy.
“Side Effects” is a film about the unexpected consequences of trying to do good. We look for a fix, or a cure, and more problems are borne out of it. Jonathan will drive himself insane trying to mend this problem he’s created in Emily, and he’ll eventually become a slave to his own medicine.
It’s an intriguing idea, and yet for all the questions that Soderbergh has us asking, we never seem to be asking the right ones. What does “Side Effects” have to say about obsession or insanity? Does it really challenge our expectations of what it is to be crazy and what it is to be dependent, or is it just a well-thought out conspiracy?
I’m not so sure. It becomes wrapped in miniscule details in its laundry list of twists, piling side effects upon side effects. There’s the brief lesbian subplot between Emily and another doctor played by Catherine Zeta Jones. There’s the question about whether Jonathan was having an affair with one of his patients. There’s even time devoted to explaining the airbag capabilities of a car.
What’s worse is that none of this manages the suspense or pathos that was found in the equally clinical and complex “Contagion,” also written by Scott Z. Burns. “Side Effects” is limp, compellingly acted but always distant and cold. Maybe it’s because it lacks the industrial score of “Contagion” or the stylistic flourishes of “Haywire” and “Magic Mike,” both of which elevated their genre material in a way where “Side Effects” fails.
I’d say “Side Effects” is just Soderbergh coasting along and that we can expect better from him, but I fear that this might be a disappointing way to end a great career.
2 ½ stars