What begins as a barbed satire of our pill-popping, self-medicating society morphs into something intriguingly different in "Side Effects." Steven Soderbergh's elegantly coiled puzzler spins a tale of clinical depression and psychiatric malpractice into an absorbing, cunningly unpredictable entertainment that, like much of his recent work, closely observes how a particular subset of American society operates in a needy, greedy, paranoid and duplicitous age.
Director Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven trilogy revelled in its nifty cons and elegant double-crosses, but those films’ duplicity is rather tame compared to the outlandish twists and turns of Side Effects, a movie that starts of as a psychological thriller about a deeply depressed woman but soon goes off in other directions, not always successfully. Increasingly ludicrous but also nasty fun, Side Effects is ultimately too clever for its own good, but if you can accept the film’s pokerfaced absurdity on its own terms, you’ll appreciate Soderbergh and his cast’s cool confidence.
You may come away from “Side Effects” calling it a potboiler, but there are fascinating themes throughout. In addition to the “Contagion”-like “this could really happen” fear-mongering about psychological pharmaceuticals, sure to be the basis of most press-tour talking points, there are delicious details about the oblique nature of truth. On a more surface level there’s how psychiatric science will always have a great deal of mystery (no one REALLY knows why electro-shock therapy does what it does), but the film gets heavy, man, and anyone who thinks the revelations of the script’s ending are a cop-out should be referred directly back to the script.
Side Effects opens the door to a fascinating dialectic between viewer and filmmaker. One that deals with a complex and far-reaching issue of our day, before it slams that door shut in favor of a paint-by-numbers game of cat-and-mouse between Mara and Law's characters. If feels as though Burns got roughly half-way through a unique and fascinating tale, realized that there was no easy or pat conclusion to be had, and decided to simply lift and co-opt a fully fleshed-out storyline from a classic thriller. The hope, it would seem, is that the setting shift to the far reaching universe of modern psychological medicine would inherently create something fresh and engaging.
(Special thanks to Walter Reade Theater manager Nikkia Moulterie for taking time out to provide desperately needed last minute tech triage).