Like the mood-altering pharmaceuticals prescribed with cavalier abandon by the film's polished shrinks, 'Side Effects' insidiously draws its viewers into the twisted lives of its main characters, lulling us into a hypnotic state and then literally twisting the knife. Sophisticated, sexy, intelligent, and adult, Steven Soderbergh's supposed cinematic swan song rivets our attention, flawlessly weaving together style and substance. We watch the film as if in a trance, but sadly, about three-quarters of the way through, the seductive drug wears off, and we're left with a pat, unsatisfying denouement that leaves a sour aftertaste.
And that's a shame, because before the truth comes out, 'Side Effects' is an immensely satisfying, impeccably helmed mystery that raises probing questions about the manner in which prescription drugs change the way we think, feel, and act. Scott Z. Burns' tightly constructed screenplay also examines the ethics of doctors who over-prescribe medication and participate in clinical trials for financial gain or the promise of prestige, all at the expense of their troubled patients. It's a fascinating, layered story packed with underlying tension and a creepy sense of foreboding. The requisite twist, however, turns this probing picture into a run-of-the-mill, cat-and-mouse thriller that becomes too clever for its own good. Though the plot's meticulous structure nicely sets up the climax, the ordered chain of events ultimately sabotages the film. A little messiness goes a long way in a movie like this, but the action here is too neat, rigid, and confined to spark any visceral emotional responses. From the opening frames, a clinical chilliness permeates 'Side Effects,' and the air never changes. Deflation eventually supplants stimulation, and when the film finally ends, you might find yourself craving the kind of anti-depressant prescribed in the film to raise your dashed spirits. I know I did.
While it's always upsetting to see a stellar film falter in its last act, the core elements lofting 'Side Effects' above other pictures in its class - expert direction, fine acting, a literate screenplay, and a sleek design - help it withstand its disappointing plot developments. Some will undoubtedly find the twist ingenious, but whether you embrace or decry it, there's no denying the high level of quality distinguishing this production from beginning to end. Soderbergh reportedly sought to emulate the style of Adrian Lyne (the opening cityscape zoom shot is reminiscent of 'Fatal Attraction'), and he largely succeeds, fashioning a sense of quiet elegance that belies the nefarious doings on display.
When her successful husband (Channing Tatum) returns home from prison after serving time for insider trading, Emily (Rooney Mara) finds herself spiraling into a depressive state. Suicidal tendencies surface, and after crashing her car into a cement wall in an underground garage, she begins seeing handsome psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who starts her on a regimen of pharmaceuticals designed to stabilize her crumbling psyche. Adverse side effects, however, force Dr. Banks to consider changing her meds. Emily suggests Ablixa, a relatively new drug, yet shortly after she begins taking it, she commits a violent act, and it's up to the courts to decide whether the devil or the meds made her do it.
Revealing anything else would spoil this taut, cerebral thriller, which maintains interest despite its pitfalls. Though not airtight, the plot holds together well (I watched the film twice just to make sure), but unlike many pictures in the same genre, a second viewing isn't nearly as much fun. All the screws in the story's carefully constructed mechanism are evident, and no one likes to see the gears turning so precisely.
The performances are measured, too, but still come off quite well. Much like the quartet in Soderbergh's breakout film, 'sex, lies, and videotape,' there's a symbiosis between the four leading characters, even though their interaction is limited. Law is the lynchpin holding the movie together, and his smooth portrayal meshes well with the other characters. For much of 'Side Effects,' Mara adopts the same pouty posture she displayed in 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,' but it suits this role, too, aptly conveying the disassociation and virtual catatonia that often define depression. Zeta-Jones is deliciously snide and manipulative as Emily's former therapist, and even Tatum manages to impress as her smug husband.
Though the initial promise of 'Side Effects' never fully comes to fruition (at least for this reviewer), Soderbergh's slick, seething mystery keeps its audience engaged. The slow-burn approach works well, and the seductive mood, intriguing subject matter, and solid acting eclipse the particulars of the too-perfect plot. If 'Side Effects' does turn out to be Soderbergh's final film as a director, he's not exactly going out with a bang, but this classy effort is far from a whimper, too.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Side Effects' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case swathed in a glossy sleeve with raised lettering. A 50GB dual-layer disc, standard-def DVD, and a leaflet with instructions on how to access the Ultraviolet Digital Copy reside inside. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, trailers are downloaded from the Internet (if your player is connected), followed by the full-motion menu with music.
As sleek and sexy as the four lead actors, the 'Side Effects' transfer exudes a crisp, silky sheen that reflects the film's elegant Hitchcockian tone. Not a hint of grain graces this smooth presentation, and the antiseptically clean source material sports no specks, marks, or scratches. Contrast is perfectly pitched and clarity is almost always letter-perfect; the reflections in the car window and in Zeta-Jones' glasses are razor sharp. Background elements possess high levels of detail, and close-ups show off fine facial features well.
The color palette seems intentionally subdued to mirror Emily's depressive state, but occasional bursts of verdant green or bold red, such as the peppers Emily slices in her kitchen, provide a pleasing accent to the streamlined interiors and concrete cityscape. Black levels are also rich and inky, whites are well defined, and fleshtones remain natural and stable throughout. No crush, noise, banding, or other digital issues afflict the picture, and no enhancements muck up the works.
As far as new releases go, they don't get much better than this transfer from Universal, which immerses us in the drama and keeps us enraptured until the closing credits roll.
Aside from a couple of intense sequences, 'Side Effects' is a quiet film, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track exploits all the subtleties well. Atmospherics gently emanate from the rear speakers, while solid stereo separation up front broadens the scope of both exterior and interior scenes. Thomas Newman's simple yet effective music score enjoys a high degree of fidelity and tonal depth, and the wide dynamic scale allows it plenty of room to breathe. Bass frequencies are mild, but the roar of the subway train injects some weight into the proceedings.
Dialogue, whether spoken in hushed tones or shouted with authority, is always clear and comprehendible, and no hiss, distortion, or surface noise afflict the clear tones that distinguish this quality effort. Though the surrounds don't engage as much as I might have hoped, the seamless balance of this unobtrusive mix enhances the drama without intruding upon it.
Just a couple of negligible extras flesh out this release. It's a shame Soderbergh couldn't be persuaded to record an audio commentary for what may be his final film, but that's water under the bridge for now.
I expected more from 'Side Effects.' What begins as a riveting exploration of drug therapy, depression, and the ethics of psychological treatment devolves into a run-of-the-mill whodunit whose payoff isn't nearly as clever as the incisive and intelligent lead-up would suggest. Director Steven Soderbergh weaves a hypnotic spell throughout most of this smart thriller, and excellent work from Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and even Channing Tatum, of all people, deceives us into believing the material is better than it is. For the first three-quarters of 'Side Effects,' I considered it a keeper and a fitting end to Soderbergh's distinguished directorial career, but the denouement bumps the film down to rental status and makes one yearn for a better Soderbergh swansong. Universal's Blu-ray presentation contains an exceptional video transfer and high-quality audio, but severely skimps on supplements. Just like shopping for a therapist, I'd advise giving 'Side Effects' an initial spin before committing to unlimited sessions.