Steven Soderberg is a chameleon of a film director. He helped the rise of independent film with his first movie, 1989’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape. Since then he’s directed 25 more features that all share his idiosyncratic visual style but are wildly different in theme. He did Rat Pack retro (Oceans 11, 12, and 13), crime dramas (The Limey, Out of Sight, Traffic), science fiction (Solaris), true stories (Erin Brockovich), a medical thriller (Contagion) and a movie about male strippers (Magic Mike). In addition he’s produced or executive produced thirty-plus films, though they’re not his own directing projects, which is unusual. He’s had a hand in such films as Pleasantville, Far From Heaven, Good Night, and Good Luck, Michael Clayton, and A Scanner Darkly. A little while back, Soderberg announced that after he finished his current projects, he intended to retire from films to devote his time to other interests, especially painting. It’s fitting that his final film before leaving is a chameleon of a story in itself, with a nod at Alfred Hitchcock.
In Side Effects, Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) had married Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) when he was a high-flying stockbroker, but soon after the wedding Martin was arrested for insider trading. They lost their money, their status, and their home in Connecticut, and Emily was treated for depression by psychiatrist Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). Emily moved to New York City and found a job in advertising. Now, four years later, Martin has been released from prison.
Emily is involved in what may have been a suicide attempt brought on by the stress of Martin’s return. At the hospital she’s seen by a psychiatrist on staff, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). He agrees to release her but only if she will see him at his private practice. Banks tries to find a drug treatment that will work for Emily, but everything he tries brings on side effects. During a chance meeting with Dr. Siebert at a conference, she mentions she’s heard of a new drug, Ablixa, that might be worth trying with Emily.
Banks prescribes Ablixa, and the drug seems to work wonders. Then, in one horrible moment, Emily’s life is shattered and it looks like the drug is to blame. Banks is identified as the doctor treating Emily, and his professional world comes crashing down around him. Soon the scandal threatens his relationship with his wife Kayla (Mamie Gummer) and his son. As his life crumbles, Banks begins to suspect that not everything is as it seems.
Rooney Mara burst onto the acting scene with a diamond of a performance in The Social Network that led to her star-making turn as The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Her Emily is a much different creation, a vulnerable waif who garners sympathy from the audience. But there’s more there beneath the surface. Banks is the most sympathetic role that Law has had in years, and he channels the Hitchcockian heroes usually played by Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant, men who find themselves in jeopardy through no knowing fault of their own. As with Scottie Ferguson, Stewart’s role in Vertigo, Law becomes obsessed with finding out what happened, even if it completely ruins him. Both Tatum and Zeta-Jones provide strong support for the film, especially Zeta-Jones.
The script was written by Scott Burns, who also wrote Soderbergh’s Contageon. He does an excellent job of letting the audience see what he wants them to see, and then slowly revealing what was hidden. As an intelligent thriller with no gun play and not a single car chase, Side Effects may not have a wide audience, but it is well worth a viewing.
After winning three championships and at the height of his game, basketball legend Michael Jordan retired and indulged his desire to play baseball. Thankfully, his Airness returned to basketball two years later and won another three championships. One hopes that this retirement by Soderbergh will be of a similar duration – or shorter.