Steven Soderbergh is famous for pulling our chains. His movies are like first drafts for better movies one hopes another director will someday make. Pretentious and overrated, a large portion of his work forms a personal pantheon on my all-time-worst list. From Solaris, the science-fiction bore so brain-damaged it’s an unintentional comedy, to a smarmy mess called Full Frontal, concocted from rag-bin remnants, and a dozen debacles in between, he’s a master of what I call “viewer indifference.” He just doesn’t give a hoot if the audience drowns in a bog of illogical twists that are never satisfactorily explained. And so it is with a tank of twaddle called Side Effects. I have seen it twice, and I still don’t know what it’s about.
What it pretends to be is a psychological thriller about the mind-altering side effects of prescription drugs, replete with a pharmaceutical glossary of every antidepressant, from Prozac to Effexor to Wellbutrin. What it turns out to be is a preposterous puzzle that fails every test under scrutiny, leaving the spectator with a “Huh?” that is meant to be uttered only while chewing gum. Even ardent and undemanding Soderbergh fans who defend experimental jokes like the catatonic Kafka and the demented Bubble will have a hard time explaining this one.
It opens with a stream of blood smeared across the polished walnut floors of what looks like a luxury Manhattan co-op. Then it flashes back three months earlier to tell how it got there. A handsome Ivy Leaguer named Martin Taylor (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after serving four years for insider trading. His wife Emily (Rooney Mara) sinks into a morass of anxiety and drives her car at high speed into a concrete wall. Narrowly escaping a suicide attempt that would have claimed the life of a stevedore, Emily emerges with a Band-Aid and gets assigned to a psychiatrist named Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes Zoloft. When that doesn’t work, he switches to an experimental new drug he’s been hired to try out on his patients at no cost, in a test program that results in side effects that are still unknown, including riding the subway in a daze, forgetting to go to her office and sleepwalking. Before you can say “Which way to Bellevue?” she turns from chopping a salad and plunges a butcher’s knife through her husband’s chest. (Channing Tatum, murdered in the first 10 minutes? Totally the work of an arrogant rebel thumbing his nose at box-office ambition, don’t you think?)
Trying to alter her brain chemistry and save her from life in prison without parole at the same time, the doctor turns for advice to Emily’s former shrink, a hard-boiled spider woman named Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). What started as a cautionary thriller about drug abuse (a topic already investigated to the hilt in a vastly superior movie, Bigger Than Life, with James Mason) now turns into a battle between two psychiatrists for the soul of their patient—one who keeps her medicated, the other who turns out to be her lesbian lover. To make the luscious Ms. Zeta-Jones plausible, Mr. Soderbergh dresses her in mannish suits and gives her slicked-back hair and horn-rimmed glasses. The man knows nothing about lesbians, but a lot about clichés.
Anyway, the movie switches gears again. Now it’s about a master plan between Emily and her lover to prove she’s a victim of circumstances and biology, blaming the murder on her doctor’s negligence. From this point on, the movie comes unglued like most Soderbergh flicks and collapses in a jumble of plot twists nobody can explain, including critics who work overtime trying. After the negative publicity surrounding the new experimantal drug (called Ablixa), its stock goes through the roof (which makes no sense: in reality this would turn Ablixa into cash register poison at your local Rexall), and suddenly the movie’s about myriad double-crosses, criminal motivations, cross purposes and assorted revenges, with everybody betraying everybody else. Questions abound, but Mr. Soderbergh is such a contrived rebel that he loses interest in such matters as cohesive scripting, narrative logic, plausible characterization or how it all turns out. When none of these elements interest him enough to follow through on even one, his critics make up for the awkward confusion by writing about his style, camerawork and overlapping sound effects.
Side Effects would have been a better movie if Mr. Soderbergh had taken the issue of the side effects of prescription drugs and placed it in a context that makes sense. But the murder case goes haywire and the double-crosses are so bewildering that all of the characters become ruthless villains victimizing each other in ways that defy rationalization. We live in a drug culture. There’s a pill that begins with every letter of the alphabet. If one doesn’t work, there’s always another pharmacologist who will set you up with another. And if that fails, every magazine advertises a new one. Such is the stuff of potential filmmaking that could be provocative and creepy. Side Effects is merely preposterous.
Steven Soderbergh keeps giving interviews confessing that he is bored with movies and promising that Side Effects will be his last one. Not a moment too soon, if you ask me.
Running Time 110 minutes
Written by Scott Z. Burns
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
Starring Rooney Mara, Channing Tatum and Jude Law