My expectations may have, admittedly, been too high. When I hear about someone like Steven Soderbergh taking a crack at a genre, such as the psychological thriller, I get giddy with anticipation. Okay, not as giddy as when I heard that Quentin Tarantino was making a war film (Inglorious Basterds), but it’s the same emotion from the same place. Now maybe Soderbergh has not been as consistent as his peers (Tarantino, P.T. Anderson, etc), but he’s made some fine films. If you’ve not seen Out of Sight (1998) yet, go check it out. Do not be deterred by J. Lo’s presence. It’s good. And the trunk scene is sexy fantastic. That scene alone gave me hope that a sexy psychological thriller was Soderbergh’s next logical checkpoint in genre filmmaking. Turns out, I was wrong.
But let’s get the synopsis out of the way. According to Netflix (which had to be amended, because they have a character’s name wrong):
[box_dark]Emily Martin copes with her depression by taking large numbers of prescription medication. But when her emotions spiral out of control due to the upcoming release of her husband from prison, she turns to a new medication, with unforseen results.[/box_dark]
Side Effects presents a concept that, in preliminary research, provided the somewhat hypochondriac side of me to grow tense. Medicine just makes me nervous. Early in the film, the tense pacing and mysterious underpinnings certainly fed this anxiety. I expected, hell, even wanted, to feel Emily’s (Rooney Mara) confusion and terror as she nervously began popping anti-depressants. After a brief string of tersely-shot near suicide attempts, the emotion was drained from the film. No longer does the film tug at your psychological fears as a psych-thriller should. At this point, there was far less tension, but somehow, we are still along for the ride. After all, we’ve still got questions that must be answered, dammit!
Lucky for us, Emily’s apparent psychosis in the hands of an experimental drug, Ablixa, takes hold. Some bizarre behavior expressed with some odd and frenetic acting on Mara’s part leads to the most thrilling moment of the film. However, before this, Emily meets her doctor, the far superior (seriously, to everyone else in the film) Jude Law, as Dr. Jonathan Banks, as he’s at lunch with his wife, played by a particularly cardboard Vinessa Shaw. Emily is erratic, so much so that her head is shaking and ticking, causing myself and everyone else around me to laugh. Was this Rooney Mara trying to prove that she couldn’t act worth a damn, or was this essential to the character? At this point, we are still unsure. The problem here, whether it was her acting or the character, is that the unintentional comedy of this scene kills the pacing and dark tension that was intended. Then came the thrilling part.
Momentum officially killed, Emily stabs her husband Martin (Channing Tatum), in a drug-induced sleep-walking psychosis. It’s an alarming scene. While we see it coming from a mile away (she’s chopping peppers while Tatum enters the building, she’s crazy he’s sweet, she’s about the get all murdery and it’s obvious). However, the way in which the scene is shot and edited, in a stylistic manner almost devoid of style, it’s so matter-of-fact, it’s jarring. An old woman screamed in the theater (although, she likely missed all of the visual cues). There is a brief section of the film that takes off, when Dr. Banks (Law) becomes paranoid, alienating, of course his wife, and other professionals around him. This is one of those all-too-common thriller clichés, but I was almost sold. Lifted, mostly due to Law’s relatively superior acting, these moments create an interesting tension. But none of this can save the film from the horrific dialogue.
Side Effects is a paint-by-numbers thriller complemented by dialogue ripped straight from your high school psych text book. The murder scene doesn’t save the film from predominantly bad acting. Or from one of the more pointless, out-of-left-field endings I’ve ever seen. Now, of course, thrillers are built on several tropes, one of them being plot twists that feed explanation for the preceding, mysterious plot. But in Side Effects, the twist is a lesbian affair between Dr. Erica Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Emily’s ex-psychologist, and Emily that must be covered up to protect Siebert’s reputation…and to cover the pair’s deceit in their own bit of insider trading scheme based on the stock dive of the pharmaceutical company that produces Ablixa (due to Martin’s murder). It all worked out, with far too many coincidences held over the most fragile plot I’ve seen in a very long while. The relationship plays out, in what I’m positive is supposed to be sexual and enticing (See: Trunk scene in Out of Sight), but was executed in awkward shots, embraces and confused passion handled poorly by the actors and filmmakers alike.
Overall, this film feels rushed. Forced through pre-production and seemingly filmed erratically during days off between other projects as though this was a hobby, and slipped into theaters post-awards season as though the studio realized how unlikely the finished product was to be nominated. I would suggest skipping this unfortunate mess. I respect Soderbergh. But I’m upset that this is how he chose to end his long career.
If you get the nerve to spend your money on this, please sound off in the comment boards below and tell me how wrong or right I am. Also, check out Matt and Kristal’s opinions on 5 Movies to Watch Instead of Side Effects.