Side Effects

Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring:  Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Catherine Zeta Jones, Channing Tatum
Review:  2 stars (of five)

Last year, Soderbergh gave us two small films, the taut thriller Haywire and the fun male-stripper drama Magic Mike.  I began my review for the latter with “Steven Soderbergh doesn’t disappoint.  Not so, I’m afraid. Soderbergh is an excellent director, but not even his cool, quietly commanding style can save a flawed script full of the laziest plot holes I’ve seen in ages, nor can it overcome the disappointment of starting out as a potentially fascinating critique of pop culture before devolving into a parody of every bad movie Richard Gere made in the ’90s.

So it’s screenwriter Scott Z. Burns who’s to blame for this tragic misfire of what Soderbergh has called his big-screen swan song.  Burns wrote Contagion for Soderbergh, and adapted The Informant for him, both good films, but as Side Effects morphs into a cheap thriller, Burns becomes lazier and lazier.  At the risk of spoilers, two examples of not giving a damn:

1.  Jude Law plays a psychiatrist who has prescribed a new drug to treat Rooney Mara’s depression.  Mara ends up on trial for murdering her husband, her defense that she was sleepwalking at the time, as a side effect of the drug.  The film has Jude Law not only become an expert witness in the trial, but the expert courted by both prosecution and defense.  In other words, we’re to believe that the doctor who perhaps misdiagnosed a severely depressed woman and misprescribed a medication with fatal effects is not a material witness, not facing charges himself, but courted as a neutral expert witness who will ultimately be given the power to decide whether Mara should be institutionalized.

2.  When Law upsets some bad people, they ambush him by sending photos to his wife.  The photos show Law in the lobby of a hotel with Mara, who is holding a Victoria’s Secret bag.  Though it’s a lie, the pictures appear to suggest Law was having an affair with Mara, and Law’s wife believes the photos were taken by a concerned third party who hid across the lobby and took furtive snapshots.  No problem.  Except the last shots in the stack of oversized printouts (wouldn’t a modern stalker just email them?) show Mara in bed, in lingerie, grinning seductively into the camera.  These photos are taken in the hotel bed, presumably by a lover–Law.  So it makes no sense that the “concerned party” took them.  Who cares, though, right?  Double-dealing blackmail photos are just what this kind of movie has to have.

Once the movie moves into this territory, it’s a well-acted, well-directed bore.  Law is convinced he’s facing an intricate conspiracy that no real person(s) would ever conceive, or manage to pull off.  Yet the plot keeps twisting, the story getting more outrageous and more lurid by the moment.  It all builds up to a fittingly ironic ending that would be worthy of Rod Serling if the filmmakers hadn’t cheated against all believability to get there.

Had the film stuck with its early promise, in which it seemed interested in the way our culture medicates emotional conditions, and even the way those medications advertise the concepts of “normal” and “happy,” we’d probably have had a great, thoughtful little film.

But we don’t.