Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects” starts out as a unique, fascinating and very daring movie, until it abruptly clicks and turns into something completely different and not nearly as good. It’s hard to remember a movie that went so completely off the rails.
This psychological thriller reminded me a lot of those movies from the 1990s, like “Wild Things,” in which there’s an abrupt, jarring plot twist about every ten minutes. It’s supposed to be edgy, but really it’s completely incoherent and ridiculous. Soderbergh has said this is his final feature film; if so, he’s not exactly going out on a high note.
The film, written by Scott Z. Burns, stars Rooney Mara as a young woman struggling as her husband (Channing Tatum) prepares to return home from prison after doing a stretch for insider trading.
Facing anxiety and depression, she’s treated by psychiatrist Jude Law with a cocktail of drugs that includes an experimental treatment from a major drug company, which is paying Law for his participation in a study. Catherine Zeta-Jones shows up too, as a rival shrink, while Vinessa Shaw- who to me will forever be Domino the Hooker from “Eyes Wide Shut”- plays Law’s wife.
For its first half hour, “Side Effects” is a serious, mature treatment of depression and mental illness, and of the question of anti-depressant drugs and how helpful they are. I remember noting that it’s rare to see a film these days that treats the subject with such realism and nuance- usually, the movies treat mental illness either as a pretext for murderous evil, or something to overcome on the way to romantic triumph, a la “Silver Linings Playbook.” The first act of “Side Effects” actually seemed to get this tricky topic right.
Well, so much for that. We soon learn that everything we thought the movie was about was a series of red herrings, and it becomes another movie entirely. It’s not that I’m against tonal shifts, jarring plot twists or shifts in genres- great movies often do exactly that, including “Psycho,” this movie’s most obvious inspiration. The problem with “Side Effects” is that the movie it appears to be is much more compelling than the movie it actually is.
I’m not going to spoil the the movie’s big surprise, except that it’s totally ridiculous and convoluted, and the further surprises that follow make it even worse. And the longer it goes on, the further out of control it spirals. The ultimate evil plan is especially laughable.
As for the drug company subplot, I was sort of afraid it would go one way, but instead it’s just sort of dropped, just another red herring- the movie raises a bunch of big questions, and doesn’t get around to answering them. This is the second movie in three years directed by Soderbergh- 2011’s “Contagion” was the other, in a plot that also involved Law- which has teased Big Pharma as the ultimate villain, before chickening out.
Weak as the script is, the performances are first-rate. Mara is a revelation, playing someone just as troubled as her “Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” character but in a completely different way. Law is good too, especially in a long segment in which the movie stops being Mara’s story and starts being his. And it’s very good to see Zeta-Jones acting again, even if its in subpar films like this and last month’s “Broken City.”
I don’t necessarily believe that Steven Soderbergh is really stepping away from directing for good. But if he does, I’ll choose to think of the much more memorable “Magic Mike” as his true swan song.