“SIDE EFFECTS” My rating: B (Opening wide on Feb. 8)
105 minutes | MPAA rating: R
For more than half its running time, Steven Soderbergh’s “Side Effects” keeps us guessing as to just what sort of movie it is.
It begins with a handsome young man, Martin (current “it” guy Channing Tatum), being released from prison.
So maybe it’s a gritty film about Martin trying to rebuild his life after years in stir?
But then we get to know his wife, Emily (the marvelous Rooney Mara, late of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”), an emotionally fragile individual coming apart at the seams. No sooner is her husband back home than she attempts suicide by driving her car into a wall.
So maybe it’s a hard-hitting film about depression?
Emily and Martin visit a shrink, Dr. Banks (Jude Law), who puts her on a powerful new antidepressant (he’s also a paid consultant for the drug’s manufacturer). Then Emily begins having bizarre sleepwalking episodes and does something really horrible and criminal.
So maybe it’s a socially-conscious film about our prevalent drug culture and an industry that tries to peddle dangerous side effects-heavy pharmaceuticals as if they were soda pop?
In the wake of Emily’s situation (I won’t be more specific…too many reveals spoil the movie), Dr. Banks finds himself a pariah among his own colleagues, the guy who drugged a patient into a criminal psychosis. His patients abandon him. His partners cut him free. His wife and stepson move out.
So maybe it’s a film about the doctor’s attempt to redeem himself and his reputation?
And then, finally, Scott Z. Burns’ screenplay reveals itself to be a thriller about…well, you’ll have to find that out for yourselves.
For its ability to sneak up on you and turn your perceptions of reality inside out, “Side Effects” reminds of the Edward Norton/Richard Gere brain-gnawer “Primal Fear.”
And like that 1996 movie it takes a preposterous premise and makes it plausible through panache and terrific acting. The film is also extremely subtle – perhaps too subtle for audiences that want every twist telegraphed in advance with a blare of trumpets. In fact, the very term “thriller” suggests an emotional intensity that “Side Effects” eschews. This movie is the cinematic equivalent of a chess match.
Law is quite good at taking a good-guy physician and plopping him down in circumstances in which his every past case is suddenly subjected to peer scrutiny. Of course, playing a good guy quickly loses its charm, and Law has a dandy time putting his psychiatrist through a paranoid meltdown.
Catherine Zeta-Jones has a few nice moments as a fellow headshrinker who previous treated Emily.
But the real star of this effort is Mara, possessor of one of the most expressive faces in the movies. She has this tiny, porcelain face with big eyes that say more with a glance than could be conjured up by a page of dialogue. When she looks sad, you half expect the theater roof to come crashing down. Her portrayal of a severely depressed woman is deeply disturbing and – within the context of this movie – one of the nicest bits of thespian sleight of hand we’ve seen in a while.
Direct Soderbergh (who keeps claiming he’s going to stop making movies) keeps all these balls in the air without breaking a sweat. This is a guy who’s made some spectacularly artistic films (“Che”), some raise-the-bar genre pieces (“The Limey,” “Out of Sight”), and very competant commercial stuff (the “Ocean’s…” flicks).
“Side Effects” falls somewhere between those extremes.
| Robert W. Butler