Grade: B+ (RENT IT)
IF INDEED STEVEN Soderbergh is retiring from filmmaking with “Side Effects,” his last film will be as perverse a spectacle as his first, 1989’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” (The 50-year-old Atlanta native says he wants to pursue painting full-time.) At 26, Soderbergh became the youngest director to win the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes. He has made more than twenty-five feature films since then, and “Side Effects” is a devious doozie of a psycho-drama to go out on. It’s also the first good film of 2013.
“Side Effects” centers around a depressed twentysomething named Emily (Rooney Mara) whose husband Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison after a four-year sentence for insider trading. “I can get us back to where we were,” the jailbird pledges, “I promise.” Mara, in a Linda Blair haircut, mopes around their Manhattan apartment, unable to put on a happy face. When she deliberately crashes her car into a wall, she invites the scrutiny of a British psychiatrist named Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who offers her a veritable pharmacopeia of anti-depressants. Halfway through “Side Effects,” Mara finally smiles and it’s the result of a powerful pill called Ablixa. Its side effects include somnambulism, crying jags, and suicidal ideation. Dr. Banks is earning 50 thousand annually as a pharmaceutical consultant for Ablixa, and when he bumps into Emily’s previous doctor (played by Catherine Zeta Jones) at a conference on ADHD, the two swap stories and a few happy pills Jones’ character has at the bottom of her purse.
And just as “Side Effects” begins to look like a critique of our chemical culture, screenwriter Scott Z. Burns (who wrote Soderbergh’s “Contagion” as well) twists the plot into something else entirely. It reshapes itself, in the Hitchcockian mode of murder and double-crossers, and forces us to shift our attention, and our sympathies, from Emily to Dr. Banks in a maze of deceit and trickery. There is something old-timey about the film’s representation of lesbian women, as duplicitous man-haters, and it’s difficult to discuss further without spoiling the film’s secrets, but the payoff is appreciable. We can only hope that Soderbergh puts down his paintbrushes and returns to the directing chair before too long.