Capitalism, pharmaceutical lobbyists, addiction and stock market shenanigans are all evil, and camera shots literally refuse to stop reminding you how serious this film wants to be. Side Effects — a drowsy noir-thriller by Steven Soderbergh has been billed as a “brilliant psychological mystery” and its appeal largely hinges on three factors: such relevant themes about society have to be given special consideration, Soderbergh says this is his swan song before retiring from feature films, and mind-bending plot twists. As it turns out, these twists and turns are tip offs to what’s contrived and heavy-handed about the film.
So what exactly is Side Effects? Story contains two narrative viewpoints. In the first half, we empathize with protagonist Emily (Rooney Mara) because her husband, Martin (Channing Tatum) has just been released after 4 years in prison for insider trading. For some reason, his re-appearance sets off Emily’s depression and things culminate in a dramatic suicide attempt when she rams her car into the wall of a parking lot. Enter psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) who prescribes anti-depressants to no avail — he consults Victoria (Emily’s former therapist) who then recommends a more powerful experimental drug Ablixia. The first twist is that sleepwalking is a side effect of Ablixia, and the climax manifests itself in the form of a bizarre murder occurring when Emily is (supposedly) still unconscious.
Banks then labors hard for Emily’s acquittal and she pleads insanity, but victory comes at a price and he suffers for it — lucrative career as a yuppie shrink recruiting patients for the pre-market trial of Deletrex (another drug by the same manufacturer of Ablixia) begins a downward spiral when the manufacturer pulls out for fear of bad publicity. The second narrative and dark web of intrigue is thus spun from Banks’ point of view when he aims to regain reputation by dredging up details about Emily’s case, hoping to unravel Ablixia-related blame. It is here that Side Effects is suddenly yanked from the hypnotic pull of pathological dynamics, and tears itself apart by suddenly changing course into a procedural second-half.
As it turns out, everything the first half suggests — is not. Because implications of Emily being the product of larger forces thriving on medical economics are completely abandoned. Depression? A cover-up. Sleepwalking? A lie. Ablixia? A decoy. Banks’ investigation unveils many red herrings planted during Emily’s segment and paves the way for plot twists, criminal intrigue and lesbian lipstick so convoluted that in its entirety, works against Soderbergh’s desired Hitchcockian mystique. As a consequence of this, Side Effects as a whole blunders into predictable Hollywood hokey. As revelations get progressively absurd, audience’s investment and patience too, are severely being tested.
Motive and intent in films haven’t seen such implausibility since Seven Psychopaths but even Seven Psychopaths has immunity decreed by the Rule of Comedy. Beyond gratuitous displays of female characters and habitual bait-and-switch so often seen in soap thrillers on TV, there is no such excuse for Side Effects. The film? Disappointing and rather quite sleazy.