It’s with a deep sense of regret I’m writing these words, because – unless he changes his mind – Steven Soderbergh is not going to direct any more movies, and if “Side effects” were supposed to be his last words, then so be it. At least he went down with his pride left intact… mostly.
It’s rare these days to enjoy a good detective story – thrilling and suspenseful. It seems that the Hitchcockian way has been completely abandoned in favor of cheap plots, dubious character development, violence, jump scares and pointless twists. That’s right. Ever since M. Night Shyamalan came along, a good story has no longer been needed to achieve a good commercial result. One needed only a revolting twist at the end. Therefore, many thrillers would become reliant on them to the point of forgetting about the structure of the plot, because it was all going to be OK when the twist is revealed. Not cool at all, I might say.
Therefore, I welcomed “Side effects” with arms wide open. In short, the newest and last big screen picture signed by Steve Soderbergh pays due homage to Hitchcockian traditions. We are introduced to a trio of characters: Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara, who – post Lisbeth Salander – looks shockingly attractive), who struggles with depression while waiting for her incarcerated husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to come back home and help get their lives back together, and Dr Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) – Emily’s psychiatrist. We meet Emily when she’s about to get her hubbie back from prison and just as they’re attempting to resume their married life and get back on track, Emily’s long suppressed depression finally manifests itself in a form of suicidal tendencies. Following a failed attempt at her own life she ends up in a hospital where she meets Dr Banks, who offers her counselling to treat her now rather obvious and severe depression. It quickly becomes apparent that Emily’s case is like none other as she doesn’t respond well to any medication or treatment, so – in the throes of desperation and following Emily’s suggestion – Banks prescribes her a totally new anti-depressive that’s just been released on the market. And it quickly turns out that this new drug – Ablixa – has very severe side effects.
This is the point from which the story takes flight into a downward spiral wherein Dr Banks needs to risk everything (his wife, his stepson, his practice, his reputation and his life) in order to solve the mystery of Ablixa, understand and cure Emily and save himself from becoming a victim to whomever is pulling the strings.
Now, I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed “Side effects”. That was exactly what I needed and I think it was a good way for Soderbergh to part ways with the big screen cinema. The story was well-crafted and carefully paced, so that the detective aspect of the plot was actually very engaging. I think that the very Hitchcockian archetype of ‘the wrong man’ was perfectly exploited here and Jude Law did his job very well.
However, I wouldn’t be myself if I failed to point out that Jude Law’s character and the whole story as a result (he is after all the pivotal pawn in this mysterious game of chess) would have been far more engaging if it hadn’t been for Vinessa Shaw – the actress portraying Banks’ wife – Deirdre. I mean, you can’t really find a more lifeless piece of wood of an actress than that, which makes the whole movie suffer across the board whenever she is around. I think, what we were supposed to see was how the doctor’s life slowly falls apart as he becomes more and more involved with the mystery of Ablixa, but instead we witnessed a wife so appallingly annoying and whiny that I literally cheered for her leaving the screen once and for all. I secretly hoped for her being hit by a bus or something, because she was simply a spanner thrown in the gears of a perfectly running suspenseful story.
Now that I finally got that off my chest, I can only congratulate both Jude Law and Rooney Mara on their very convincing work. I am not entirely sure what to say about the very cold and calculated performance of Catherine Zeta-Jones as the distant and enigmatic Dr Siebert, and that’s because something tells me that she was just playing herself there. But why should I bother? It fitted the story perfectly, so all is fine with the world again.
“Side effects” ended up a very good thriller with a detective slant and a well-fitting ending that did not overshadow the rest of the plot with its twisty-ness held at acceptable levels. I think Soderbergh did a very fine job here (again with a helping hand from Scott Z. Burns – author of “Contagion”, who wrote the script) by presenting us with a film that touches on a very important subject in these recent times – namely our reliance on pharmaceuticals. The movie exemplifies our inner fears and phobias that we sometimes associate with modern medicine. I think everybody knows at least one person who would identify themselves with the sentiments that “Side effects” brings up. It’s almost every day I hear about how big pharmaceutical companies are plotting conspiracies to get us all killed or worse – zombiefied by their secretively addictive medicines, and how the only thing that counts for them is monetary profit, or how they have no respect for us – their customers.
I think Soderbergh’s “Side effects” touch on these problems in a very subtle way by using our own fears to fuel the story, thus making it even more compelling. And to my vivacious satisfaction, the film ends up straying away from making any political pseudo-scientific nonsense statements on the matter, which saved Soderbergh from looking like a semi-educated judgmental fundamentalist conspiracy theorist, which I hope he’s not.
In the end, I have to say that I hope Soderbergh changes his mind. Fair enough, “Side effects” is a very good way to leave the scene on a good note, but still I secretly hope he would come back and give me another ride like this one. All things considered, I think “Side effects” was a very good movie and I’m sure as hell that if The Great Alfred was still alive, he’d gladly direct it himself – and with a similar net result. Maybe he’d give Jude Law’s character to a woman, but other than that, “Side effects” by Hitchcock would look more or less the same.