May induce drowsiness
Side Effects is well written, well acted, and helmed by a competent director, but for some reason these ingredients mixed together makes a hard pill to swallow.
Side Effects, a psychological thriller directed by Stephen Soderbergh, is an overall success thanks in no small part to two of its stars, Rooney Mara and Jude Law. The film’s pulse-quickening thrills come in satisfying jolts; unfortunately, they are far outnumbered by the soggy, wordy pacing happening in between them. It isn’t until the hour and twenty-minute mark (roughly half an hour before the end) the film sheds its plodding pace and consistently entertains. “It will take a while for the effects to sink in,” Doctor Banks (Law) remarks of the film’s central medicine. This prescription writes itself.
Psychiatrist Jonathon Banks believes he has found the right medicine for Emily Taylor (Mara). She’s been suffering from severe depression since her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) was sent to jail four years ago, losing his high-paying job and undermining their lofty social status. Martin has just come home and promises he’ll get the couple back to where they were.
Taylor arrives at Banks’s door after circumstances with her previous shrink Doctor Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) didn’t work out. Upon a third party’s suggestion Banks prescribes Emily to an anti-depressant Ablixa, and soon her life is back under her control. Both are unaware of the drug’s potential side effects, however, and Banks quickly finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy with several individuals intent on proving his guilt.
This is the premise for, say, a little less than half the film, give or take a few minutes. The screenplay (written by Scott Z Burns, lover of plot twists, who also scripted Soderbergh’s 2011 Contagion and 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum) jerks in about a dozen different directions up until the final stretch, where I’d estimate a twist is thrown once every two or three minutes. Infuriatingly, every scene that isn’t a plot twist (believe it or not, this movie squeezes some in) is a drawn-out dialogue-heavy sequence meant to do nothing other than deepen the already confounding mystery. What it really does is anchor the movie’s momentum.
The film could have benefitted from more dynamic visuals. Obviously it wasn’t poorly shot (with Soderbergh at the helm, it would be hard to imagine it was), but it could have exchanged its cold composure for more exciting angles. Soderbergh shot most of the film with an unmoving camera and flooded the sets with hazy yellow lighting, like the camera itself was too depressed to move. The film’s moody appearance is at times difficult to immerse oneself, especially during the quieter, “Shh, we’re building up to a plot twist!” scenes.
The consistently impressive Mara, almost unrecognizable in normal clothes given her past few roles, couldn’t have done more to improve the film’s sometimes lagging dynamics. Paired with Law, the two leads injected some much needed emotion into the character-heavy piece. Meanwhile Tatum seemed a little more uncomfortable in his own clothes, or maybe wearing clothes in general, something he’s not used to (don’t worry ladies, he’s not clothed for long).
Side Effects is a weird mixture of sleepy and exciting, and is a thriller we should be thankful for having in an era of depressingly low-level intelligence in movies (I’m relieved I saw this over its critically bashed co-release Identity Thief). It never manages to balance action and quieter scenes, and I can understand why confusion may be an included after-effect for audiences. I just wish this thriller hadn’t felt so much like sleep aid.