Steven Soderbergh's latest unexpected pitstop on his way to retirement is, like many of his other pitstops, almost disappointingly efficient. One would expect the endlessly ambitious and urbanely experimental director who almost singlehandedly invented the indie boom of the 1990s to make nothing but enormous, high-profile, high-concept motion pictures as he takes his sweet time sauntering out of showbiz. But for the most part (I'd say Magic Mike notwithstanding), most of Soderbergh's recent films have been practically rote thrillers, seemingly tossed off on a whim, squeezing well-known and oft-clichéd action tropes through the raw and compelling Soderbergh aesthetic. Films like Contagion and Haywire are essentially Hollywood action films, told with Soderbergh's bloody-minded straightforward momentum, rarely stopping for commentary or thematic exploration. These action flicks are fun to watch, and expertly made, but I'd rather Soderbergh fiddle around with something revolutionary, rather than dabbling (however fascinatingly) in Hollywood cliché.
Side Effects, his newest film is, perhaps most markedly, defined by that same efficiency. Which is almost a pity, considering how tantalizingly close it came to being something else. Rooney Mara plays a wounded and depressed young woman living in New York City. Her boyfriend (Channing Tatum) was recently released from prison, and she's having trouble coping with all the stress his prison sentence imposed on her life. It's not long before she drives into a wall in an aborted suicide attempt. She begins seeing Dr. Banks (Jude Law), an ambitious British psychiatrist who feels she would do better with a prescription of antidepressants. There is a lot of shop talk between psychiatrists, and we begin to see that the sad truth of many antidepressant prescriptions in this country: that they are directly sponsored by Big Pharma. Dr. Banks gets big kickbacks from the drug company, and his patient gets to try something new. That this new drug has completely unexpected side effects (hence, the title) should not come as a surprise. I will not reveal what happens, or to whom, except to say that there's a lot of blood involved. Side Effects then becomes a gut-wrenching legal battle about who is responsible for the drug's negative effects. Whom do you blame when a patient takes drugs willingly, the shrink feels he was doing the best for his patient, and the drug company has actually had good results in the past? And how far will Dr. Banks, the film's eventual main character, go to cover his own ass?
For the film's first half, we're drawn into a terse and topical political exposé, which threatens to uncover the frustratingly passive and well-documented culture of over-medication in America, complete with complicit shrinks and patients who don't seem to care what they're taking, so long as it works in the short run. Soderbergh seems to be pointing his movie toward a general ripped-from-the-headlines editorial tragedy that would serve to expose, in all its corrupt glory, the uncaring business side that dictates America's not-so-well-managed medical system.
But just when Side Effects moves tantalizingly close to something political and relevant, it backs off, and the film's entire second half morphs into a Grisham-like thriller where people sneak around in darkened offices looking for missing files, trying to reveal the schemes and lies and conspiracies perpetrated by one of the characters. I don't want to reveal what happens by the film's end, but in the second half, we see someone inject someone else with truth serum, we see altered re-tellings of events from the first half of the film, and, most frustrating, we see a bizarre and completely out-of-place secret lesbian love affair that would blindside you, if it weren't so ridiculous. The film is nearly undone by some of these late-in-the-game revelations and dumb plot machinations that would have felt more at home in 1995. Perhaps with Ashley Judd somehow involved.
Of course when Soderbergh makes a thriller, he does so with a shimmering, golden straightforward motion that can be hypnotic and fascinating, so even if he is letting us down on the political exploration and trudging through familiar thriller schlock, his movie still tends to be imminently watchable. I sense that with Side Effects – as with Haywire – Soderbergh was handed a middling script at random, one doomed to remain on a development exec's desk for years, and put his all into it. Side Effects is most certainly not a trumpet blast of the director's energies, and it's not going to be the tell-all, hand-wringing docu-drama you hope it will be, but it is a pretty good thriller from an interesting director, and that's not necessarily nothing.
Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.