When he decided to announce his “retirement” from moviemaking (though, as time passes, said declaration appears to be more and more specious), Oscar winner Steven Soderbergh mentioned that he might like to try “new things,” to expand his creative horizons before hanging his auteur hat up for good. In light of his comments, his supposed cinematic swansong begs to differ. Side Effects is perhaps the greatest love letter to Alfred Hitchcock that any slightly outside the mainstream moviemaker can craft. It’s links to the Master of Suspense are so obvious as to border on brilliant. On the other hand, such a homage highlights the fact that no one did mystery and psychological thrills better. In this case, Soderbergh is just spinning his aesthetic wheels.
Four years ago, Emily’s (Rooney Mara) stockbroker husband (Channing Tatum) went to jail for insider trading. Now free, he is trying to rebuild his life while our heroine deals with the mental fallout of such a riches to rags decline. Seeking treatment for depression, she falls under the drug company-sponsored tutelage of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). Prescribing her some new, experimental pills, Emily soon finds herself also suffering from bouts of sleepwalking. A tragedy leads Dr. Banks to seek out the help of one of his colleagues (Catherine Zeta-Jones), a former therapist of our heroine who may know more than she’s letting on. As the legal system percolates around him, Dr. Banks must discover the truth of what is going on, lest he find himself banished from his profession.
Playing with perception and opening with a shot lifted straight out of Psycho, Soderbergh makes his intention to play Hitch an obvious aspect of Side Effects‘ mystique. This is a movie made up of MacGuffins, where everyone and everything may or may not play a major part in the final denouement. Sure, Soderbergh fiddles with ideas outside of the whole “did she or didn’t she” dynamic, taking on the drug companies with a callous, cynical eye while focusing some light on the fallacies inherent in psychological profession. The scene where Dr. Banks is recruited to be part of a (well paid) drug trial has the potential to go somewhere, but Soderbergh really isn’t interested in such a plot path. Instead, he’s so busy building red herrings that the finale feels flat and anticlimactic.
The cast is certainly up for the challenge. Tatum’s cameo aside, Mara makes a compelling center. She’s timid and yet something behind her eyes suggests there is more to her mania than a ex-con spouse. She carries the film, even when Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Burns let her down. It’s a tricky turn and Ms. Mara makes it consistently work. It’s too bad then that Law’s conflicted headshrinker is so passive. Instead of acting out immediately, he waits until it is too late to stand up for what’s right. Such a lax initial attitude is frustrating, and when matched with Catherine Zeta-Jones near inert performance, leaves Side Effects with an aura of being slight, not significant. Thankfully, Mara is so engaging that she makes up for her mediocre coworkers.
The end result, however, is a plot twist type experience that, one revealed, diminishes most of what we’ve seen. There’s no lasting surprise, no wonder or “wow” factor. Instead, Side Effects is a serviceable suspense effort that owes more than a little to its desire to mimic one of the medium’s masters. Soderbergh may indeed be saying goodbye. Too bad his farewell was merely good, not great.