Excess Hollywood: ‘Side Effects’ induces long-term suspense

If there’s one thing Steven Soderbergh enjoys more than his star-studded ensemble casts and the burnished glow of his beloved RED camera, it’s threatening to retire from filmmaking.

Since the release of his 2011 plague procedural “Contagion,” the director of “Traffic” and the “Ocean’s Eleven” series has vowed to abandon his craft on several occasions, each time citing the difficulties of financing original projects in Hollywood and the creative malaise of the film industry in general, which he sees as an inferior animal compared to long-form televised narratives like “Breaking Bad” and David Fincher’s Netflix-only political potboiler “House of Cards.”

I personally hope he never makes good on his threat, because “Side Effects,” Soderbergh’s newest and purportedly final big screen project, is also this year’s first solid argument against the inferiority of mainstream cinema. Here, at long last, is a quality motion picture, a clinically observed, morally dubious psychodrama that piles on the twists without pulling any dramatic punches. It continues Channing Tatum’s post-“21 Jump Street” ascension into the realm of credible acting while allowing Rooney Mara (Fincher’s “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”) room to develop as a character far removed from the glowering glamour of Lisbeth Salander.

Scott Z. Burns’s screenplay, a thematic fusion of Hitchcock and “Repulsion”-era Polanski, revolves around Emily (Mara), a timid, emotionally frail woman struggling to reconnect with her husband Martin (Tatum), a Wall Street wunderkind turned professional pariah following a four-year stint in prison for insider trading.

After a series of self-destructive fantasies lead to a very real car crash, Emily starts seeing Dr. Banks (Jude Law), a prominent big city psychiatrist who, after realizing the cash-strapped woman won’t be able to afford his hourly fee, offers to treat her with Ablixa, a newly produced, largely untested antidepressant the good doctor is being paid to prescribe. Because we wouldn’t have a movie otherwise, Emily agrees and all hell gradually breaks loose.

The story I’ve just described may seem familiar, even hackneyed in its Big Pharma-baiting premise, but please understand I’m only skimming the surface of a fluid labyrinth churning with deeper currents of lust, treachery and the alarming notion that when it comes to murder, pre-medicated can pass for premeditated. To go into further detail would be a great disservice to the viewer, so I’ll limit myself to complimenting the performers and Soderbergh’s polished, economical direction.

Jude Law, who suffered a bout of overexposure after appearing in seemingly every movie circa 2004, has recovered admirably and now stands as one of my favorite working actors. His Dr. Banks is a study in barely concealed misanthropy, a smirking elitist disguised as a genial sympathizer. Then, with the character’s every hypocrisy seemingly exposed, another layer is revealed, throwing the audience through the first of many dizzying ethical loops. His scenes with Catherine Zeta-Jones, playing Emily’s slinky ex-shrink, are especially memorable.

Another performance of note comes from Ann Dowd, who wowed critics last year as the brainwashed fast food manager in “Compliance.” Here she plays Martin’s mother, a fierce protector who refuses to let her daughter-in-law’s deteriorating mental health stand in the way of her little boy’s happiness. Her final scene with Emily is a tempered crescendo, teeming with equal parts rage and regret. One of the film’s few flaws is not finding more screentime for this extraordinary character actress, a Soderbergh veteran who appeared alongside Matt Damon in 2009’s corporate espionage comedy “The Informant.”

Soderbergh frames every shot in the movie with a methodical eye for harnessing atmosphere, using it as a whetstone for sharpening suspense. If “Side Effects” ends up being the director’s swan song, it’s a fitting farewell, a celebration of his precise, even-keel approach to so many different genres.

All speculation aside, though, I doubt we’ve seen the last of Soderbergh. After all, in the two years since announcing his supposedly imminent retirement, the man shot and released no less than four films, including “Haywire” and the extremely profitable “Magic Mike.” Filmmaking, like any powerful drug, can be a difficult habit to break.

  • Updated Feb. 10, 2013 at 11:47 pm
  • Edited by Megan Hinman