DVD Release Date: May 21, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: February 8, 2013
Rating: R for sexuality, nudity, violence and language
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 106 min. 
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum, Catherine Zeta Jones, Jude Law, Polly Draper

Director Steven Soderbergh has successfully worked across genres: star-studded, glitzy caper films like the Ocean's series, a coming-of-age tale (King of the Hill) and a historical epic (Che) are among his credits. He’s alternated small art-house films like Sex, Lies and Videotape with star-driven vehicles like Erin Brockovich. The results have been impressive: a Best Director Oscar (for Traffic) and a catalog of films that range from blockbusters to ultra-obscure (Schizopolis).

For months Soderbergh has been saying he plans to retire from directing feature films as soon as he finishes a few projects in the pipeline. One of those is Side Effects, another project with big-name actors that, like 2011's Contagion, explores issues of medical ethics. But unlike Contagion, Side Effects is also about personal ethics. It plays not like a propulsive against-the-odds thriller, but a slow-burning, twisting mystery that veers into uncharted territory for Soderbergh. The final product is strangely unsatisfying—moving into erotic, even perverse areas that aren’t well suited to Soderbergh’s smooth but cold visual style.

Things are looking up for Emily (Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) when she’s reunited with Martin (Channing Tatum, The Vow). He's been locked up for months, convicted of insider trading, and although the couple is happy, they know that Martin’s reintegration into society will be tough. In contemporary America, the couple believes, insider trading is treated as the equivalent of murder.

Martin tries to retain an optimistic outlook—"I can get us back to where we were," he assures Emily—but it quickly emerges that Emily is struggling with something that may go deeper than concerns about Martin’s future. In a fit of despair, she drives her car into a parking-garage wall. She survives and is prescribed an experimental drug, Ablixa, by a psychiatrist (Jude Law) caring for Emily. It "stops the brain from telling you you’re sad," he explains to Emily.

The drug has some nasty side effects that include sleepwalking and radical changes in behavior. The film's first half plays like an exposé of the influence of Big Pharmaa psychiatrist prescribes an experimental drug as part of a trial for which he’s being handsomely paidmixed with a surface examination of philosophical questions such as whether we're all just victims of circumstance and biology.

The performers are good, especially Law, who, between this film and Anna Karenina, has started to fulfill the promise he showed as an actor before starring in a series of misfires. Just as surprising is Tatum, the star of Soderbergh's 2012 summer hit Magic Mike, who proves again that he has dramatic chops when working with the right director. Mara, best known for playing Lizbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, again plays a cipher, but a seemingly much more innocent type than Salander.

There are mysteries to Side Effects that shouldn’t be spoiled in a review, but readers should know that the plot twists take the film into areas that represent a sharp turn to the story. Any pleasure at being taken by surprise by the film is offset by the nature of the revelations. Not only is the content troubling, but Soderbergh doesn't commit, for better or worse, to the lurid, over-the-top style that would best suit the story's shocking turns. Instead, Side Effects borders on cool-and-clinical when it needs much more fire.

That approach has worked for Soderbergh on certain projects, but this story's change-ups leave him grasping for the right fit between form and content. The director’s films are, at their best, thought-provoking... when the style serves the story. With Side Effects, we wind up thinking too much about Soderbergh and his stylistic choices, and too little about the characters.

It all makes Side Effects at best a curiosity, at worst unhealthy. So, as former first lady Nancy Reagan once advocated, "just say no" to this drug story.

CAUTIONS

  • Language/Profanity: Lord's name taken in vain; multiple uses of the 'f'-word
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Prescription drugs are central to the story
  • Sex/Nudity: Kissing; we hear a couple having sex, then see them in bed from the shoulders up; a woman’s bare back and a man’s bare chest; a woman says she went shopping to make things more exciting for her man, then holds up what appears to be a Victoria’s Secret bag; a man removes his wife’s shirt; a woman’s bare breasts are shown; discussion of oral sex; same-sex kissing
  • Violence/Crime: Blood on the floor; a prison term is served for insider trading; a woman drives a car into a wall; a murder; a person is slapped, a person is struck with a purse; securities fraud
  • Religion: A Haitian man claims he saw the ghost of his father

Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@hotmail.com.

Publication date: February 8, 2013