Side Effects | Movie review
Steven Soderbergh tries his hand at a Hitchcockian thriller.
The promotion for Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects includes a Psycho-style campaign of secrecy; critics were warned that, due to the film’s surprises, late arrival “would be unrewarding.” As such, it seems unsporting to reveal more than the barest wisp of a plot. With her husband (Channing Tatum) wrapping up a prison term for insider trading, young socialite Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) seems…unhappy. That state lands her in the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist attracted to her fragility, reluctant to follow hospitalization protocol and happy to quell her with pharmacology.
Written by Contagion and Informant screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, Side Effects was clearly conceived as a contemporary Hitchcockian thriller. But in the wake of Soderbergh’s Contagion, The Girlfriend Experience, Magic Mike and parts of Haywire, it’s also the latest in the director’s ongoing series on the financial crisis—examining a world in which contentment is measured in money and mitigated through corporations and facades. Banks moonlights to support his lifestyle and, like many doctors, sees little harm in getting paid to use trial drugs on patients eager to accept free meds. (Shooting certain scenes to resemble Big Pharma ads, Soderbergh has made a movie in which his glossy surfaces deceive.) And just as drugs represent one route to self-fulfillment, the husband’s wheeling-deeling suggests another path to unearned success.
Both about derivatives and consciously derivative, the movie finds Soderbergh riffing not only on Hitch but—through Mara’s cipher trophy wife—on Polanski’s apartment thrillers (Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby). Putting traditional thrills in the hands of one of our preeminent genre deconstructionists makes for an intriguing if dispassionate fit. Beyond its hyperreal videography, Side Effects might be a bit cool for the Master’s taste, leaving a few too many dangling questions. The movie is marred by one unconvincing development and another that, even upon second viewing, leaves a gaping plot hole—unless a character is lying. Maybe knowing what happens doesn’t reveal all that Side Effects conceals.