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Unsettling ‘Side Effects’ works more than it doesn’t

by Trevan McGee on February 8, 2013

in Print Reviews,Reviews

Side Effects, a thriller set to the back drop of the prescription drug industry is a film that will likely be remembered as being the last feature film from director/editor/cinematographer/auteur Steven Soderbergh. And though Soderbergh didn’t write or edit the film, the film’s success is entirely thanks to his careful eye and narrative efficiency.

Rooney Mara stars as Emily Taylor a depressed and disaffected young woman whose husband, played by Channing Tatum, has recently been released from prison. As she struggles to adjust, she makes a cry for help that lands her in the office of Dr. Jonathan Banks, played by Jude Law. It isn’t long before she’s prescribed an experimental new drug for depression called Ablixa that begins to change things both for the better and the worse.

One of Side Effects’ greatest accomplishments is its ability to change genres and character focus naturally over the course of its near-two-hour runtime. What begins as a social problem film that deals with the prevalence of our prescription drug culture quickly becomes a murder mystery before eventually becoming a revenge thriller. This is a wise decision on both Soderbergh’s and writer Scott Z. Burns’ part, as any one genre here is too flimsy on its own.

The film also scores points for its treatment of mental illness. We see depression from the perspective of Mara’s character. We see obsession from the perspective of Law’s. Both are decidedly different, but neither illness is exploited for cheap dramatic thrills. They may be the basis of the film, but they’re treated tastefully.

The same can’t be said for a late twist involving Catherzine Zeta Jones‘ character. I won’t spoil it, but for a film that has been so careful in its choices up to that point, that twist is pointless, sloppy and better suited for straight-to-video schlock.

The film is strongest when it switches perspectives to Law’s character. It’s an unexpected turn that totally changes the course and genre of the film, but it happens just when Mara’s plot was beginning to wear thin. Law has been such a reliable actor for so long, it’s easy to take for granted his talent. Here, he manages to be both sympathetic and callow.

Zeta Jones is largely underused in the film. She lends a dignity to what could have been a taudry character, but she doesn’t have much to do

In the end Side Effects isn’t a magnum opus. It doesn’t stand in the same class as Traffic or Out Of Sight, but it does speak to Soderbergh’s talents that the film not only works, but is an overall solid thriller. The genre shifting could have been confusing, but here it works and the film still manages to go to some troubling places, even if it never stays with any of them long enough to say something  substantial.

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