Side Effects impresses, surprises reviewer

First off, the discovery that the First Lady has been relegated to presenting the Oscar for Best Picture is both hilarious and a little depressing, but mostly just very random. Also, the fact that no movies actually got shafted Sunday night is pretty surprising; maybe there’s hope for that silly statuette after all (read: probably not). However, while not serving as a witness to what most critics will say was probably Seth MacFarlane’s finest work, I was busy enjoying Steven Soderbergh’s newest film, Side Effects. Side Effects is another genre piece for the eclectic Soderbergh; he went so far as to create his own genre for this one: the pharmaceutical thriller. Now, your question is probably what mine was before seeing this movie: since when are those orange prescription bottles capable of being the central plot point of … well, anything that isn’t an episode of Intervention?

Rooney Mara, best known as that-girl-with-the-mythical-reptile-inked-to-her-back (American version, naturally), is the star of the show, playing the clinically depressed wife of Channing Tatum. Jude Law, a.k.a. Robert Downey Jr.’s less caffeinated sidekick … errr … partner in Sherlock Holmes, portrays Mara’s sweater vest-rocking psychiatrist. When Mara’s husband returns from jail after being sent there for insider trading (use your finance jargon dictionaries), her depression worsens and she requests to be put on a new medication. Law prescribes her the new drugs, and everything seems to be going swimmingly until Mara discovers the pills have … wait for it … Side Effects!

After turning in her Oscar-nominated performance as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo a little over a year ago, everyone imagined Mara would be going nowhere but up. Instead, she goes down—deep down—into depression as the character Emily Taylor. I kind of have to give Mara top marks for acting, basically because I thought she was actually suffering from depression in this film. Between the lifeless expressions and the crying and the apathetic delivery of dialogue, I’d say she had a pretty good handle on this particular condition. Also, despite the fact that they only had a few scenes together, Mara has surprisingly good chemistry with Catherine Zeta-Jones, and those scenes crackle accordingly.

I can’t even remember the last time I saw a movie with Law in it. I want to say it was Repo Men, but I don’t want to insult the guy, and I’m not exactly trying to drive away potential readers of these reviews, either. Perhaps it was Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows—yeah, let’s go with that. Law proves to be a little less fun and a little better in this more serious role. As Dr. Jonathan Banks, Law plays a smart guy who doesn’t really appreciate when things aren’t under his control. His obsession with the side effects that his patient is experiencing leads to a pretty compelling performance, albeit one that drastically changes near the end. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this sudden shift in his character, from being on the brink of falling apart to suddenly being calm and collected, but I feel it was definitely a flaw, since Law’s transition was jarring.

Tatum wasn’t really in the movie for that long, and the few scenes he was in had him without his shirt on. All I can say is I guess Soderbergh is still trying to appeal to the fans that made Magic Mike a success—or maybe all of Tatum’s contracts just have a shirt-off clause at this point. Either way, he didn’t really do much and was important to the plot up to a point. Meanwhile, Zeta-Jones was pretty nefarious as Emily’s former psychiatrist, her murky motives resulting in Law’s gradual spiral into obsession and becoming generally unhinged. I’d say she was the highlight of the supporting actors, which I don’t find surprising because she’s pretty awesome in most of her roles. Except in The Legend of Zorro; we just don’t talk about that movie.

Writer Scott Z. Burns has written a pretty great script here, one that proved to be very twisty and actually had me on the edge of my seat for the second half of the film. Of course, I don’t think “pharmaceutical thriller” should actually become a thing because, come on, it sounds absolutely ridiculous. I will say that this is a very taut thriller, which just so happens to have a bunch of orange prescription bottles strewn throughout. The drugs aren’t necessarily what the plot is about though; Soderbergh always manages to choose films that aren’t entirely what they seem. That’s exactly what screwed me over when it came to Magic Mike: I was banking on the movie not being about male stripping when it wound up being … well, about only that. This movie is more like his other films, though, in that it actually isn’t what it seems. Which is good, because watching a movie about people popping pills and experiencing varying side effects would have been really lame.

Speaking of Soderbergh, his direction on this film is very stylish. We’re talking RPI-kid-wearing-a-MassEffect-hoodie-around-campus stylish (had to look in my closet for that one). The shots he lines up are great, and the film itself has a pretty high-end look despite the fact that it was done on a relatively low budget. His ability to evoke great performances from his cast is also on display here, and the way he is able to convey Burns’ script without getting bogged down by the convolution of the twists is a testament to his prowess. Meanwhile, as I mentioned above, some of the shots are great, and that praise is also partially owed to the cinematographer; the color palette and overall look of the movie is also very cool, so basically cameras and camera people are awesome. The music in the film was serviceable, but nothing special. The lack of Adele’s vocals was noted.

So let me answer the question on everyone’s mind: No, this is not Magic Mike 2. Yes, Tatum is in it, and yes, his shirt is off for parts of it, but I’ve already been scarred once so I did my research on this one. What this is is a well-directed, smartly written thriller with some pretty solid performances. So, if you’re looking for something a little brainier, check this movie out. Or maybe you just want to watch a bunch of CGI giants run across a screen, chasing after Ewan McGregor and the guy who played the lovestruck zombie in Warm Bodies. In which case, I guess you could watch Jack the Giant Slayer this weekend. Either or.