Side Effects Review
All in all, it's a sharp, crisp, and stylized presentation
Way back in 1998, I sat down with a beer to watch a movie with a crappy title that I had little to no expectations for whatsoever. I was sure that “Out of Sight” was going to be your average, forgettable action schlock. The first thing that struck me was the soundtrack – I found myself raising an eyebrow and paying more attention. Next, rather surprisingly, came the fact that I was rather enjoying the lead, George Clooney, depicting a suave and cool ex-con playing opposite the usually vacuous and intensely annoying Jennifer Lopez. This was very out of character for me, and I immediately leapt on to my new favourite website at the time, IMDB, which had only recently been acquired by Amazon, to see what the hell it was I was watching. Turns out it was Steven Soderberg that glued this action flick together. I'd heard his name before, mostly in relation to Sex, Lies and Videotape, so I immediately set about fixing that.
From then on I made a vow to watch everything Soderberg directed.
A jolly hop, skip and a jump a couple of decades on, brings me to Side Effects, his latest, and apparently last ever feature. I'm defiantly assuming that this is just lies designed to galvanise the lauded director's fan-base into anticipation for his next TV project – The Knick, for which I shall reserve judgement.
In Side Effects, Soderberg has managed to genuinely open a can of worms by tackling some topically intense subject matter and doing it with the craft we have come to expect from the man who gave us Contagion, Magic Mike and most recently, the much celebrated Behind the Candelabra.
It follows the story of a young girl who is in the midst of a desperate struggle against manic depression. Her husband, a banker who had been jailed some years previous for insider dealing, is released from prison, and the couple attempt to pick up their lives where they left off. It quickly becomes apparent that this is neither going to happen fast or easily, as Emily, played with an incredible intensity by Rooney Mara, discovers that no matter what plans the couple make, she struggles to see anything but a bleak outlook.
Despite his best efforts, Martin (Channing Tatum), finds that he is unable to pull his beloved wife from the pits of desperate depression that she's stuck in on his own. Out of ideas and at the end of their tether, they turn to Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) for help.
Banks genuinely wants to help. He's a good guy. Perhaps it's a folly of his youth, or maybe despite his brilliance as a Psychiatrist a lack of experience that prevails in taking Emily's complicated case on, but it becomes clear almost immediately that his work load is substantial. Seeking the advice of one of Emily's former doctors, Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), Banks is talked into agreeing that Emily may be a perfect candidate for one of the more recent pharmaceutical treatments, Ablixa. It's in this aspect that the film touches on it's first ethically questionable theme, and it's handled extremely well by Soderberg, who delivers just the right amount of doubt versus hope in his character's disposition.
Before long, Emily finds that the new drug is beginning to work. A new-found lease of life sparks between the married couple, their sex life erupts into all new territories, much to their delight as up til now their relationship had been devoid of much intimacy at all.
Things seem to be going well, until some side-effects of the new drug begin to manifest. When Martin finds Emily sleepwalking and eerily carrying out tasks such as making coffee whilst in this state, he feels compelled to talk to Dr. Banks about it, who reassures them both that, as with all medicinal positives, some unwanted minor side effects are to be expected, and that sleepwalking is one such effect that Ablixa is known to have associated with it. Essentially, don't worry about it.
It's at this point that people who hadn't been interested in the movie are about to sit up and start paying attention. The sleepwalking gets worse and worse, and ultimately things begin to deteriorate massively between the couple. It's a narrative turn that will undoubtedly make you shift in your seat. It requires the audience to adjust their levels of concentration, and without giving too much away, it's one of those mid-movie twists that slaps you in the chops, hard.
Soderberg is delivering a true psychological thriller with Side Effects, and as his audience, you're being handled without really realising it. He's manipulating your assumptions and stripping away layer after layer of intricately woven narrative, confidently leading you towards his perfectly delicate cadence in the last quarter of an hour. If the movie was a book it would be described as a page turner. Of course, credit for the writing must go to Soderberg's regular co-collaborator Scott Z. Burns who crafts a maze-like narrative structure around extremely complicated issues with confidence and dexterity. When you give a director like Soderberg material like this to work with, you're unlikely to find yourself disappointed.
As far as the cast goes, it couldn't have worked out better really. With Rooney Mara giving an exceptional, perhaps even career-defining performance as the troubled and desperate young wife whose struggles with depression are taking over her life. She's showing us just what she can do here, and her vacant, blank expression throughout the movie is both telling and haunting.
Meanwhile, Jude Law turns in a performance that's as good as I've seen from him. In fact, I have to go as far back as Closer, almost ten years ago, to find a performance that even comes close to equalling his portrayal of Dr. Jonathan Banks – and even then, I'd be hard pressed to concede that it's even as good as the show he puts on here. Tatum showed us that he's not all braun and biceps with Magic Mike, and here, he gifts us a timid and understated performance as Martin Taylor. Lest we forget, Zeta-Jones is another stand-out show stealer here with her confident display as Dr. Siebert – she's clearly put a lot of thought into her role and, I'm not afraid to admit it - I underestimated her ability.
All in all, Soderberg's magic has worked a treat in inspiring his leading cast to put on a great show, and that only serves to strengthen this, dare I say, "old school" thriller. It's not doing anything wildly out of the ordinary, but it's in the fact that it's not desperately trying to stand out amongst the crowd that we can find a genuinely enthralling and completely memorable film that's worthy of a place on the shelf, filed neatly, yet prominantly, amongst the other quality thrillers already there. Recommended.
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