SIDE EFFECTS Review

Scott Z. Burns has written two of my favorite Steven Soderbergh films since 2009 and up through his recent rush of films from late 2011 into what is being called his last major feature that is the subject of this review, Side Effects. Burns penned the lovably goofy 2009 farce The Informant! as well as the first and very well crafted of Soderbergh's final run, Contagion. Each of these films have a very distinct tone and a very good sense of what they are while not relying on the conventions of their genre to restrain or define them. The same could be said for this latest Burns and Soderbergh collaboration as it is hard to even tell what category it might fall into. As soon as you'd like to think you know where it is going Side Effects begins to venture down a different path. I love it, walking into the film with only a vague knowledge of what the film is about (thank you deliberately fuzzy marketing campaign) and being able to relish in the execution of the film as it slowly unfolds to reveal itself as something much more than I ever expected it to be. There are hints of the cautionary tale, of the talespin into madness, even the courtroom drama with an element of mystery, but what makes the movie such an enjoyable and rather brisk experience despite the slow start, is the fact it melds each of these elements together seamlessly creating a mixed bag of drama and emotions, dynamics and expectations that are still able to form a cohesive and satisfying story while throwing twist after twist at the audience and keeping us on the edge of our seats as we anxiously await which character will pull back the next layer. With a more than firm hand on the wheel from Soderbergh and a fantastic ensemble cast Side Effects is easily the first great film of 2013.

Jude Law and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects.
Without giving too much away the best way to sum up the film is to say that Rooney Mara (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) plays Emily Taylor, a young, working woman in her late-20's whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison after four years for insider trading. Upon his release Emily relapses into a depressed state which had only previously come about just after Martin was arrested in the first place leaving her with almost nothing and forcing her to change her lifestyle completely. To deal with these bouts of depression and suicidal thoughts Emily begins seeing a psychiatrist that she meets at the hospital, Dr. Banks (Jude Law). After a few sessions the good doctor prescribes Emily a new drug on the market known as Ablixa and from here things get a little complicated. Naturally, I won't say why or in what ways but just trust that you need not know anything more; you wouldn't even have to know all I've already said and should feel more than motivated to seek out this twisty, taut material that has so many turns their is no way you will guess what is really going on until the makers decide they want you to know. Thus is the power of a controlled and able director such as Soderbergh. He has proven his versatility in just the last year or so by producing his version of a horror film (Contagion) an action flick (Haywire), and a light drama with plenty of moments ripe with comedy (Magic Mike). With that in mind the director forces you to embrace Side Effects for whatever it decides to be or shift into as the story moves along. It is a testament to his skill, but also to the understanding of the way drama works that allows Burns screenplay to shine through and do all the heavy lifting making it feel effortless and natural to the actors we end up watching on screen.

With that, the ensemble cast truly is in stellar form here. Having had little room to spread her wings since her breakout role as Lisbeth Salander in the English-language version of Stieg Larsson's best-selling novel Rooney Mara exhibits she is no one note actress (though after making Salander all her own no one doubted she was) as she is faced with portraying a character that carries the film while not being able to carry the wight of the pressures of her own life. It is a tall order, and in fear of saying too much, I will simply keep it at the fact Mara never once loses us or Emily in the story. As much as this is a film guided by its plot, Mara is able to guide Emily through the devices while maintaining a sense of self-purpose. Tatum does fine work here with what he is given and if nothing else solidifies his status further as both a pretty face and a credible actor. The real gem here though is Jude Law. After having little luck headlining films the appealing and charming Brit has maintained a line of steady work and big enough hits by participating in these ensemble pieces. I felt his turn as Karenin in Joe Wright's lavish Anna Karenina was an underrated performance as it was one of the only aspects of that film that was able to match the beauty of its look with the emotion of its story. Here, as a man at the center of all things going on with every character around him his Dr. Banks is forced into the position that anchors the film. Some will likely complain that as the film enters its third act it goes slightly off the rail and into a realm that could be called ridiculous, but I never felt this way. Instead, I was more than satisfied, I was excited by the course the film decided to go and much of the way this is credibly translated from page to screen is in the performance of Law. Catherine Zeta-Jones also has a meatier role than any in recent memory and she seems to know it and take full advantage of the opportunity.

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) turns to doctor prescribed pills to battle her bouts with depression.
Even with each of these fantastic elements bringing a fair share of weight and respectability to the project what stands out most about the film comes back around to the man at the helm. The film is beautifully shot consisting of those yellow and blue tinged frames that make everything seem slightly off kilter with its digital glow and attention to detail that eliminates the haze of film. Many filmmakers will speak out against switching from traditional film to the digital medium but Soderbergh has done more than embrace it he has become the unofficial spokesperson for it. I won't say that I don't like the results either because I think that for what he is doing, it serves the purpose very well and indicates not only a specific style but communicates a desired tone. There is a purpose in every angle, a point to be made with what is left in focus or the composure that continually experiments with its depth of field. Going back to watch the film a second time will likely only give more meaning to the inserts of certain close-ups, certain looks, or even the collaboration of score with a certain image. The music in the film serving as its own character as it very artistically moves in slowly and moves the mood of the scene exactly the way the director wants it to go and likely the way the writer imagined it to be. There is nothing that stands out about the score, no melodies you will remember as you leave the theater but every now and then you will pick up on its subtle presence and realize the power it has, the vitality of its role as part of a bigger composition. I hope that Soderbergh is like most in this industry that claim to retire and eventually find there way back to doing what they have been lucky enough to do in their lives. I still am not completely sure why this is being called his last film as he's already directed another movie, but one that will be premiering on TV rather than in the theaters. If this does indeed end up being the final feature I see in a theater from Mr. Soderbergh though, it certainly isn't a bad way to go out.