Since altering the indie-film landscape with his 1989 debut Sex, Lies and Videotape, Steven Soderbergh has been one of the most prolific and idiosyncratic American filmmakers of the modern era, directing 26 features in 24 years. That furious pace burned him out, apparently, because he has announced that Side Effects will be his last theatrically released picture for the foreseeable future. (His final project, a Liberace biopic starring Michael Douglas and Matt Damon, will appear on HBO later this year.) It’d be nice to report that he’s going out on a high note, but for some reason he’s chosen, for this penultimate at-bat, a script so head-smackingly stupid, so profoundly ignorant of actual human behavior in its quest for the “gotcha,” that it would have made a passable B-story on an episode of The Practice 15 years ago.
Which is a shame, because the setup seems promising. Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara), a young woman suffering from clinical depression, attempts suicide and is treated by Dr. Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes various medications—including a new drug called Ablixa, which improves Emily’s mood but also induces episodes of sleepwalking. During one of these episodes, something rather horrific occurs, leading to Emily’s arrest and a barrage of questions in the media about whether Ablixa, and by extension Dr. Banks, was responsible for what happened. Emily’s previous psychiatrist, Dr. Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones), has some unexpected thoughts on the matter, leading to an epic battle of wills and a great deal of absurdity.
To say much more would give the game away, and it’s arguably detrimental even to mention that such a game exists. But you should at least know in advance that Side Effects is by no means a serious look at pharmacological abuse, and be prepared for it to shift in a direction that leaves common sense far behind. All the actors are terrific (with the exception of Zeta-Jones, who telegraphs her character’s agenda), and the movie holds your attention throughout; it’s really a question of how much evil-genius plotting you can tolerate. For my part, watching this patent nonsense get the full Soderbergh treatment—dazzling surfaces, expert pacing, unexpected grace notes—just made me feel a little sad. He’ll definitely be missed.