In the email I received inviting me to a screening of Side Effects, it was described as “Steven Soderbergh’s final theatrical film.” Rumors of his impending retirement have gone back a couple years now but I hope more than ever that they’re not true because it would be a shame if this trashy, cynical piece of slick ectoplasm were to be his swan song. Then again, maybe this is his version of torching everything and walking out the door of Hollywood with both middle fingers held high. That would perhaps be the only slightly satisfying explanation.
Rooney Mara plays Emily Taylor, who has been making ends meet on her own for four years since her formerly wealthy husband (Channing Tatum) went to prison for insider trading. Just as he is released and their life is on the path to normalcy, the depression that has apparently been a lifelong struggle returns to haunt Emily. After an apparent suicide attempt, she begins seeing a psychiatrist named Dr. Banks (Jude Law). He begins trying to address her problems with a series of drugs, eventually finding one that seems at first to work. Then something goes horribly wrong and life changes drastically and immediately for Emily and Dr. Banks both.
What I’ve just described is so little of the plot that it barely gets us to the inciting incident. It also covers the only part of the movie that takes place in anything close to a recognizable reality. In fact, one of the few possibilities for a fun time to be had watching Side Effect is wondering what preposterous identity the film is going to don next. At first it seems it’s going to be a groan-inducing and unsubtle polemic about the evils of Big Pharmaceutical, with scenes such as the one where Banks and his colleagues list all the gifts and vacations they’ve received from drug reps. When Catherine Zeta-Jones, as another shrink, pointedly hands Banks a pen with a new pill’s logo on it, I may have laughed out loud.
Just when you’ve resigned yourself to a lecture that’s going to be as nuanced, quiet and reasonable as a Gwar show, Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (re-teaming with the director after The Informant! and Contagion) spin the wheel into another big, dumb, brick wall. Suddenly, this is a film about Dr. Banks becoming a frothing, paranoid conspiracy theorist, whose wild eyes and lack of hygiene only keep the blind sheep from taking him seriously enough to realize that it might all be true, man. To be fair, this is the section that comes closest to redeeming Side Effects and that’s due solely to the talents of Law, who hints at the desperation that leads people to invest in conspiracies because they just need an explanation and they need it all to be someone else’s fault.
Now, the notion that you might find a point to all this is too much for Soderbergh and Burns to bear and so the movie must change again. It would be unfair of me to spoil the headache of implausible twists and turns that await you in the final stretch of the film. Also, I don’t want to because of how stupid it all is. It would be almost impossible to predict where this film ends up because it’s difficult to pretend to be as dunderheaded as this screenplay. The movie will out-stupid you.
So gobsmacked was I by the preposterousness of what I’d seen, it wasn’t until later that the offensiveness of it all sunk in. Firstly, it is smugly disrespectful of the mental illnesses it pretends to treat solemnly before disregarding that tack for the tawdry melodrama of made-for-basic-cable-movie junk. Just under that layer of grime, it’s also a regressive and dismaying portrait of women. Tatum’s white collar criminal gets treated with sympathy while the movie essentially makes the point that bitches are crazy and you can’t trust them.
With his smaller-scoped films, Soderbergh has often indulged in formal experiments. His most recent works, Magic Mike and Haywire, started with crowd-pleasing Hollywood premises and then stripped away all the aesthetic adornments. In both cases, the approach worked. Perhaps Side Effects is meant to be a stab in the other direction. It’s the best-looking movie he’s made at least since Contagion, it has a heavyweight cast and the score by Thomas Newman is tense and moody. So it’s a very pretty package containing nothing of any real worth. Success?