For the last few years director Steven Soderbergh was growing increasingly disenchanted with Hollywood. He finally decided to retire and Side Effects is his second to last movie - that title belongs to Behind the Candelabra, HBO produced film that actually found its way to this years' Cannes competition. Soderbergh's disenchantment definitely shows - Side Effects is one of his dullest and most uninspired movies.
In fact, the more I read about the film, the more I think retirement, or at least a long break, may be a good idea for Soderbergh. Some of the ideas he had during the production of this movie - such as casting Justin Timberlake in the role that ultimately went to Channing Tatum (which to be honest is only a little better) or casting Lindsey Lohan as lead - are bizarre and disturbing.
Emily (Rooney Mara) is a strange young woman. She seems sad, off, lost. She is about to greet her husband back home, who spent four years in prison for insider trading. When he is released, Emily doesn't seem much happier. She goes to the parking lot, she starts a car and she drives her car into a wall. In the hospital she meets Dr Jonathan who agrees not to put her under observation if she begins therapy with him. She starts taking a drug - Ablixa - which is supposed to be make her happy. Instead Emily starts to sleep walk, behave strangely and soon other side effects follow...
I assure you this synopsis is much more interesting and coherent than the movie itself. Side Effects is riddled with so many problems, it's hard to figure out which is the biggest one. My choice would be the lack of focus. Soderbergh really doesn't know what he wants to do with this story. Is it a thriller about side effects of the drugs? Is it a thriller about a young, lost woman? Is it a thriller about a shrink caught up in conspiracy? There is a movie out there, a good movie, but Soderbergh doesn't appear to have skills to pull it off anymore. Either that or he was so bored by the very plot of this one, he didn't even try.
The film gives up on having a clear protagonist for the sake of a dumb twist in even dumber murder mystery. So instead of following just Emily, the film shifts focused from her to Jonathan after she kills her husband and says she doesn't remember doing that. Is it a side effects to the drugs Jonathan prescribed her or is she lying? Did she plan the whole thing or is it a tragic side effect?
Another issue is that I really didn't care - Emily has personality of a potato, her husband is equally bland, Emily's old shrink played by Catherine Zeta Jones (who is, by the way, aging horribly) acts and looks like cartoon villain and Jonathan's wife is an utter and complete bitch. Jonathan is the only likable person in this whole mess, but that doesn't make him into interesting character.
The whole murder plot is as ridiculous as it is boring to unfold - so let me get this straight - Emily and her doctor/lover Victoria hoped that the will earn money claiming Ablixa causes side effects (there was talk about stock exchange or something, I really didn't care but I got the gist). The claim to this side effects existed only because Emily killed her husband. She killed him because she hoped without him "things will be different" after visiting him every week for four years when he was in prison? Really?
The film makes the claim that Emily is sane and she knows what she is doing but I wouldn't say that. For me someone who kills her husband simply because she hopes things will be better is a psychopath. She manipulates everyone in the movie and does so with no remorse. Again, I don't think the writer thought of that, considering how half-assed this whole story was.
Apparently Soderbergh said his biggest influence on this movie was Fatal Attraction. Well, then I must bring his apparent lack of skills again - Adrien Lyne knows how to make certain scenes erotic. Soderbergh, used to know it (Out of Sight, Solaris) but here he completely fails. Rooney Mara and Catherine Zeta Jones actually make out in this film and there is no heat, no spark, no desire. I couldn't believe it was shot by the same person who gave us tub scene between J.Lo and Clooney.
As usual with his movies, the film is very stylish. The cinematography and editing are very skillful and elegant, but the raw style and serious tone mixed with something that was supposed to be erotic and sensual really don't go well. It doesn't help that the characters seem so one dimensional. Everything looks polished, sterile, instead of passionate and dirty. Murder! Sex! Betrayal! You can't talk about those things and keeping things so neat and clean.
The film is only watchable because of the way it looks, sounds (Thomas Newman score was better than this movie deserves) and because of the dedicated cast. Tatum and Zeta Jones do what they can with the material, which really doesn't require them to do all that much. What is it with Soderbergh and Tatum anyways? I wouldn't say the man can't act but it's almost as if he was his muse.
Mara and Law are very good in their roles. Mara, who is a very talented actress, really deserves better material though, considering she even did full frontal here. That said she is utterly convincing as cold and detached Emily. It is Law however who completely steals the show as Jonathan, managing to actually create something of slightly complex character in the movie filled with cliches.
I'm not sure why I'm so surprised this movie was average. Soderbergh haven't made a great movie in years. The fact that Side Effects is boring and forgettable could be forgiven. But the fact that it was lazy and made by someone who appeared not to have any interest in it? Absolutely not.
Side Effects (2013, 106 min)
Plot: Emily Taylor, despite being reunited with her husband from prison,
becomes severely depressed with emotional episodes and suicide attempts.
Her psychiatrist, Jonathan Banks, after conferring with her previous
doctor, eventually prescribes an experimental new medication called
Ablixa. The plot thickens when the drug starts having unexpected side effects on Emily.
Scott Z. Burns
Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Jude Law