After a two-decade career that's brought him from Sundance darling (with sex, lies, and videotape) to Hollywood eminence, Steven Soderbergh can pretty much do what he wants. But after his forthcoming HBO Liberace biopic (Behind the Candelabra) and Side Effects, he says he'll retire. Such declarations generally yield to the desire for a private Caribbean island or château in the Loire Valley, but let's take him at his word. Soderbergh, a total filmmaker who handles his own camera, is only as good as his script. And this big pharma/crime tale by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion, The Bourne Ultimatum) is not a great script. Yet it starts smartly enough, as Emily (Rooney Mara) waits for her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to be released from jail after a four-year term for insider trading. (Only in the movies, it seems, does the SEC have any teeth.) Understandably, Emily is depressed, and she's on a lot of pills.
Opens Fri., Feb. 8 at Sundance Cinemas and other theaters. Rated R. 106 minutes.
Beginning with the twinned topics of drugs and money, Side Effects is undeniably topical. America is an overmedicated nation, and the pharmaceutical industry is a huge, corrupting influence within our health-care system. At first, Dr. Banks (Jude Law) attempts to resist that influence, providing suicidal Emily with modest meds and a sympathetic ear. But more danger signs present themselves, so he enrolls her in a clinical trial that will, conveniently, provide him some much-needed extra income. Try this new drug, he says, it's called Ablixa. ("Take back tomorrow," purrs the Internet ad.) Then, doped up and hallucinating, Emily does something disastrous. Banks' reputation is ruined, and he's in need of an Erin Brockovich to save him.
That's where Side Effects begins to stray from present urgency to old Hollywood genre piece. Mara, virtually unknown before the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake, projects a worryingly blank stare. As Lisbeth Salander, a kind of psycho autistic-savant, you knew she was capable of dark deeds. As Emily, you're not so sure. When her prior shrink (Catherine Zeta-Jones) begins criticizing Banks' treatment of Emily, we see the basis for those charges. Was Banks coming on to this damsel in distress? (Allegations of prior medical misconduct are conveniently relayed from the UK.) Is Banks hopped up on his own pills? His behavior, to his wife and colleagues, begins to seem erratic and paranoid. And his further treatment of Emily takes on the obsessive aspect of A Dangerous Method—physician, heal thyself?
As Side Effects becomes a medical/legal procedural, with lawyers, courtroom testimony, and flashbacks, you could imagine a different set of actors—perhaps Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck—in an older, black-and-white version of the same script, with the same enjoyable plot twists. I mean this respectfully, since Soderbergh is a Hollywood classicist, but Side Effects ultimately feels like a remake. And if that's the way he chooses to end his career, fine. Side Effects embodies the pleasures of the familiar, if not the discoveries of his past.