Director Steven Soderbergh is a man of many talents who likes nothing more than to defy expectations by treading in many different genre pools, sometimes in the same film. It seems only fitting that what he claims will be his last feature film (his Liberace biography, BEHIND THE CANDELABRA, airs on HBO later this year) incorporates different styles, tones and storylines that come together rather beautifully, if not perfectly. SIDE EFFECTS is a relationship drama, psychological thriller, social commentary, mystery, and a sleazy film noir all in one messy and wholly entertaining package.
The film starts out with insider trading convict Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) being released from prison. His beautiful wife Emily (Rooney Mara) is there eagerly awaiting him, but something about her is off, and it turns out that she's suffering from anxiety and a deep depression that leads her to attempt suicide. In the aftermath, Emily goes to see psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who puts her on a series of anti-depression drugs that don't quite do the job. After being hooked into doing clinical trials (for a great deal of money) for a new drug, Dr. Banks soon puts Emily on the drug, which does improve her mood and her sex life, but also causes her to have fairly active, sometimes dangerous sleepwalking incidents.
I don't want to say too much more about the plot, but let's just say that something really bad happens while Emily is sleepwalking, and she must go on trial. What's fascinating is the way SIDE EFFECTS transforms into a courtroom drama that isn't about whether Emily committed a crime or not but whether this new drug and Dr. Banks are to blame. And while some may say the film is (among other things) an attack on the pharmaceutical industry, what it really becomes is a statement about psychiatrists who jump right to meds for treating their patients rather than intensive therapy. I've seen this theory put forward in regard to treating children with behavioral disorders, but rarely is it handled so well in regard to adults. But none of that matters, because before too long, the movie shifts direction again.
Now the film goes from being about Emily to being about Dr. Banks, whose home life has become a wreck as a result of these claims against his practice. To save his reputation, he begins to investigate the drug's history, which leads him into revealing conversations with Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and then back to exactly what went wrong with Emily's treatment. Twists and turns—some predictable, some totally out of left field—begin to pop up, so much so that you almost have to laugh at the places this film goes. But I never stopped enjoying the sleazy, b-movie journey Soderbergh and his occasional writer Scott Z. Burns (THE INFORMANT!, CONTAGION).
Do I care if sometimes they stray into "Law & Order: SVU" procedural territory? Hell, no. The film is handled with Soderbergh's usual combination of sophisticated filmmaking, technical know-how and intelligent handling of his actors, but all you're going to notice is how much fun you're having as Dr. Banks goes down the rabbit hole that is this case. While not Soderbergh's finest achievement, SIDE EFFECTS is undeniably watchable, works as a sharp guessing game, and features a handful of tightly wound performances, especially from Law and Mara (and if you don't blink, COMPLIANCE's Ann Dowd does some nice work as Tatum's mother). Add this film to HAYWIRE and MAGIC MIKE, and you have a hell of a last year or so for a prolific filmmaker for whom quality is never in short supply.