PG Cooper: Side Effects Review

Posted: February 18, 2013 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews


At first glance, Side Effects seems like a small thriller given its promotion and early in the year release date. However the film’s importance proves much greater when one considers it may be the last theatrical film from auteur Steven Soderbergh. Starting in 1989 with sex, lies, and videotape, Soderbergh has continued to solidify himself as a talented filmmaker, unafraid to take risks in both the projects he takes and the decisions he makes when working on them. He’s also a very prolific director and has made 25 films in a 24 year career (and that’s not including documentaries, shorts, and television works). As a result, Soderbergh is burnt out and is taking a sabbatical from filmmaking. Which leads to the question: is Side Effects the last great film from one of the best filmmakers of the last two decades or a footnote in Soderbergh’s excellent career?

It’s hard to write about Side Effects without giving away too much. A lot of the film relies on the script’s many twists and turns, so I’ll keep my synopsis basic. After spending four years in prison for insider training, Martin (Channing Tatum) is returning home to his wife Emily (Rooney Mara). However Emily falls back into a depression upon his return and after an accident begins to see a psychiatrist named Jonathan (Jude Law). Jonathan begins to prescribe various medications to Emily attempting to find one that works, but this leads to catastrophic results which change the lives of everyone involved forever.

Written by Scott Z. Burns, Side Effects is a genuinely surprising film. There are several twists and turns throughout the film, several of which are very unpredictable. A lot of movies fall into a formula and become predictable after the first act, but Side Effects has a story which moves constantly. I can say with certainty I had no idea how the film would end for most of the runtime. However this unpredictability comes at a price. As the film goes on, the twists become more and more improbable and I eventually was unable to buy that. On top of that, there are moments in the film that didn’t make a lot of sense. I will say that I was always interested in what happened next, but some of the payoffs were too ludicrous for me to take seriously.

Thematically, Side Effects makes for a nice companion piece with Burns’ and Soderbergh’s last collaboration; Contagion. While very different in many ways, both films deal with the pharmaceutical industry. Contagion presented the benefits, while Side Effects looks at the drawbacks. A lot of the best moments from Side Effects come from the analysis of the pharmaceutical industry and I really enjoyed seeing such themes explored. Unfortunately, after the second half the film begins to delve into conspiracy and becomes a thriller. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but I was enjoying the film’s first half so much that the second served to disappoint me. The themes and ideas I found fascinating were now pushed to the background as subtext.

The cast here is pretty solid. Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta Jones are both fine with what they’re given, but it is Rooney Mara and Jude Law who really shine in the lead roles. Mara captures the depression her character goes through perfectly and needs to go through a pretty wide range of emotions. She makes Emily a very sympathetic character and one really feels for her. Jude Law is equally great as the doctor who prescribes Emily’s medication. What I love about Law’s work is his transition from being concerned to being obsessed. It could have been a jarring shift but Law really sells it and plays both aspects of the character very well. He and Mara are both fantastic and if this film weren’t so early in the year I’d expect some awards buzz.

Steven Soderbergh’s direction is top-notch. As always, he manages to get great performances from his actors while still nailing the technical details. The cinematography is very strong, having a cold and clinical look or a dream-like haze depending on the situation. Both techniques work very well and add to the film. There’s also just some very good shots. Soderbergh also utilizes a subtle score from Thomas Newman very effectively. The film is also edited in a way that’s constantly entertaining.

If Side Effects is Soderbergh’s final film, then I’m disappointed. Not because Side Effects is bad, but because it’s so good, and most of the good things about it are a direct result of Soderbergh’s talents. He clearly still has the touch for filmmaking and I’m sure he has more good, if not great films still in him. While I do have problems with Side Effects second half where the film becomes a bit absurd and abandons the threads I enjoyed so much, the film is still very well acted and features great direction from Steven Soderbergh.

Rating: B+

  1. Chris says:

    Now, I would like to see this too.

  2. CMrok93 says:

    Totally wild film, but a bunch of fun that’s even more exciting because of the cast and what they are able to pull out of their bag of tricks. Same goes for Soderbergh, as well. Good review PG.

  3. barronlouise says:

    Now I really want to see this, too bad this film is slated to open on somewhat may on our country, well there is Piratebay.

  4. It would be a shame if this was truly Soderbergh’s last film, wouldn’t it? His movies are always intriguing, and sometimes great.

    Meanwhile, you probably have a point about the final few twists not being that credible. They definitely fell into “only in the movies” territory and actually, might have been a bit cliche. :(

    But its still really well directed and well paced, as you point out. Very watchable enjoyable flick I thought. Nice review!

  5. Paula says:

    I got the feeling from the trailer that this was going to be twisty, thank you for not giving a lot away. I really want to see it now.

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