Director: Steven Soderbergh
Writer: Scott Z. Burns
Starring: Jude Law, Channing Tatum, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta Jones
Running time: 106 minutes
Steven Soderbergh keeps threatening to quit filmmaking, yet somehow he still seems to release more movies than any other director. Apparently, according to the man himself, Side Effects definitely is his last feature, but in all honesty, it’s hard to take that seriously when he keeps saying the same thing after every film. Back when he was promoting Contagion in 2011, he told Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode that it was his last film, but since then he’s gone on to make Haywire, Magic Mike, and now Side Effects. Roughly four films in three years. Still, if this time he’s true to his word and this is indeed his last picture, it’s a great shame, because he’s proven he can do much better.
Side Effects is more than it says on the tin. From the trailer one might expect simply a study of the side effect of medicinal drugs, which in part it is, but it also takes us into the world of lawsuits, murder and conspiracy. Jude Law’s psychiatrist becomes the central figure as the drama wears on into said conspiracy territory around half way through, which is welcome because he’s one of the best parts of the film. I’m not always won over by Law (like in Contagion, his last collaboration with Soderbergh), but in this instance he fills the character’s boots nicely. Rooney Mara, too, gives a very fine performance as depression-stricken Emily, and Catherine Zeta-Jones, while doing nothing spectacular, is perfectly solid.
There are certainly further positives to be found here. Soderbergh is and always has been a very clever and workmanlike director who really understands his medium, rarely going for the flashy side of things and instead sticking to stories that are more grounded and character-driven. Even Haywire, which I really wasn’t a fan of, was a very efficiently and confidently constructed film that understood what it was trying to do, even if I wasn’t on board. Side Effects is no different in that respect. This is a perfectly well put together piece of cinema with strong performances and confident ideas, and Soderbergh’s presence behind camera is palpable as always. Unfortunately, though, none of this stops problems from seeping in from the very beginning.
The script probably could have done with at least one more redraft, as the set-up to unraveling the frankly overly complicated events of the second and third acts is a bit too forced, and much of the dialogue, while not ostensibly bad, just sounds obvious and doesn’t sit right. If neither of these, it just needs a jolt of energy to invigorate it, to crank it into gear, because if this is a thriller it’s a very un-thrilling one. When the drama takes a slightly unexpected early turn and the narrative shifts its focus towards Jude Law’s psychiatrist, things do get a bit more interesting (he’s one of the best parts, remember), and further interpretations of the film’s title become apparent, but it still never fully breaks free from being all too un-involving. The film so desperately wants us to care about the characters, but it never gives us a chance to.
Perhaps the easiest way to picture this film is like a wave. It has consistent and regular peaks of moments where you think it might just kick off, but then an equal amount of troughs where plodding sequences and stunted dialogue drag it back down to base level. It evens off somewhere in the middle, with the overall feeling that it’s just all a bit flat.
In the end it just doesn’t reach the heights it wants to. Sure there’s a twist here and a turn there as it tries to make something more of itself, but these often feel contrived rather than intriguing. We just have to hope that this isn’t actually Soderbergh’s last outing as director, because it’s not the film he deserves to go out on. Nothing more than a watchable but very nuts-and-bolts drama.