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Side Effects
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by Brett Gallman

"A not-so-bitter pill after all."
4 stars

Steven Soderbergh has been our most impressive cinematic chameleon during the past decade, so it’s appropriate that his (supposedly) final theatrical offering is a film that cleverly morphs from one mode to the next with an ease that Hitchcock would appreciate.

“Side Effects,” like “Psycho,” is a tale of two halves; its first half concerns the plight of Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young woman whose husband (Channing Tatum) has recently been released from prison for an insider trading scandal. Even though things should be looking up for her, they are trending decidedly downward; she falls into a deep depression, and a suicide attempt lands her in a hospital.

She comes under the care of Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a psychiatrist who begins to prescribe the usual laundry list of prescription drugs. When they fail to help Emily, he suggests an experimental new drug with deadly side effects.

To reveal any more would rob one of the film’s primary pleasures, as it’s delightful to watch “Side Effects” unfold. Initially, it seems to be a cautionary tale of “living through chemistry” in our overly-medicated modern world. Mara is absorbing as Emily, the fragile girl on the precipice of total despondency. Surrounded by anti-depressant ads and constantly driven by suicidal thoughts, she would seemingly act as an ideal conduit for a film that seeks to explore the perils of pharmaceutical happiness and chemical imbalances.

As it turns out, “Side Effects” isn’t interested in this at all. There’s a moment where everything shifts—you’ll know it when you hear the gasps from the audience—and the film sheds whatever thematic weight it had. It then proceeds to strip all the way down and reveal itself as a movie that was only masquerading as a heady, unnerving drama. By the end, it’s clear that Soderbergh hasn’t just been trying on Hitchcock’s digs but De Palma’s as well since “Side Effects” is elegantly made pulp.

As its plot weaves its way to further absurdity and the film sifts through various modes (courtroom drama, crime procedural, neo-noir, etc), its aim becomes more primal: this is nothing but a delicious, tantalizing thriller that reminds us of the terrible things people can do to each other.

Usually, such empty calories would be a bit disappointing, but “Side Effects” is a good example of less serving as more; there’s a real razor-sharp directness to Scott Z. Burns’s script, and Soderbergh’s direction is suitably exact. Even though he’s echoing other work, you can still feel him in the film’s detached, clinical style. This might be the iciest sex-laden thriller in recent memory, and it never approaches the delirious, sweltering heights of De Palma. It’s riveting stuff, nevertheless, even if the script cheats here and there; some behaviors are motivated only by a desire to trick the audience, and you might find that the film’s internal logic folds with a little scrutiny.

None of that hardly matters in the moment, though. There’s still a distinct cleverness in the proceedings, particularly in the way the film becomes something completely different without skipping a beat. “Side Effects” might seem like Rooney Mara’s movie, but Jude Law actually sneaks in and swipes it in the role of the “wrong man” when his complicity in the film’s tragic events comes into question. He’s forced to clear his name, which causes him to unravel the film’s ridiculous plot.

Law is one of the few genuinely likeable people in the film, which is crucial because “Side Effects” absolutely wouldn’t work otherwise; while the script provides plenty of stakes for the character in the way of his family and professional reputation, Law is genuinely empathetic in the role, so it’s a joy to watch him not only discover the truth but also distort it for his own ends. Catherine Zeta-Jones provides strong support as one of Banks’s colleagues in the medical field who also happened to be Emily’s shrink a few years earlier; like Mara, she delivers a deceptively layered performance that would seem mind-bogglingly good in retrospect if “Side Effects” didn’t feel so effortless.

Perhaps that’s why Soderbergh is threatening retirement—this sort of thing almost feels too easy for him. Remarkably, it never seems like its beneath him; there’s a real energy and precision to “Side Effects” that belies his intentions to hang it up. And while I’m skeptical that will actually happen (no one who makes films as compulsively as Soderbergh ever seems likely to truly quit), it feels appropriate that “Side Effects” will be one of this final efforts.

There’s nothing particularly aggrandizing or sentimental about it; instead, it just feels like the type of film Soderbergh felt like getting out of his system; it’s a total junk thriller that’s elevated by his touch, and it comes at the end of an incredible run that’s seen him sneak four films into theaters over the course of eighteen months. “Side Effects” is the most accessible of the bunch, but it’s a fine example of dumb fun that feels like so much more. Call it a placebo effect, but that’s what great directors do.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=23951&reviewer=429
originally posted: 02/10/13 14:13:35
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User Comments

7/16/18 morris campbell a good thriller some good twists 4 stars
10/05/13 Monday Morning Lame, slow, boring - not worthy of Soderbergh nor Hitchcock. 2 stars
7/06/13 mr.mike Not bad home vid rental. 4 stars
6/23/13 action movie fan good iidea but film is too ponderous and slow 3 stars
5/11/13 Langano Build up was good but the ending was a letdown. 3 stars
4/25/13 Marlon Wallace Starts off great but didn't like homophobic portrayals at end. 2 stars
2/18/13 Waldemar Walas Best movie I have seen this year 4 stars
2/16/13 Apollo Much ado about nothing 2 stars
2/11/13 joe Kennedy I could not disagree more. Soderbergh(and I am a fan) lays the ground work for a movie that 3 stars
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  08-Feb-2013 (R)
  DVD: 21-May-2013


  DVD: 07-May-2013

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