If you appreciate kinetic, intelligent commercial thrillers, then stop reading this review and make plans to see “Side Effects.” There’s no point in going into the theater with anything but the vaguest plot synopsis, and the filmmakers have gone out of their way to provide none. The trailer playing in theaters gives very little hint at the storyline, and distorts the time sequencing of the movie — and with good reason. “Side Effects” doesn’t capsize the unsuspecting audience with a final twist — it drifts subtly from its initial premise to reveal plots within plots.
Rooney Mara stars as Emily Taylor, a mousy assistant at an advertising agency whose fortunes have declined since her wealthy young husband Martin (Channing Tatum) went to jail for insider trading. She’s been visiting him faithfully during his four years inside, and adjusting to her reduced circumstances — having moved from a waterside palace in suburban Connecticut to a walk-up apartment in an unchic section of New York City.
But when Martin is released and the two try to resume their life together, Emily can’t quite pick up the pieces. After a desperate and dangerous cry for help, Emily is put on anti-depressants and enters the care of psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). It would be a crime to give away more than that — except to say that as the title suggests, Emily has problems with the medication that enmesh her, Dr. Banks and her former therapist (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in a web of intrigue.
While Steven Soderbergh’s movies aren’t known for their bravura performances, “Side Effects” is exceptionally well acted. Mr. Law in particular is fantastic as an ambitious doctor who finds himself making professional compromises as he struggles to earn more money.
Mr. Soderbergh conveniently announced he is stepping away from directing feature films in advance of the release of “Side Effects,” perhaps to offer critics the option of evaluating his cinematic legacy, rather than disclosing plot points from the middle third of “Side Effects.” The movie isn’t exactly a bookend to a long career, but it is more evidence, if such were needed, of his versatility as a storyteller. Though his career took off with the highly stylized independent film “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” Mr. Soderburgh evolved into a modern day Billy Wilder, at home in any genre and with any sort of budget.
But Mr. Soderbergh is at his best in the world of crime. I’m not talking about the “Ocean’s” franchise, which is forgettable despite its gaudy charms. But in “Out of Sight” and “The Limey,” Mr. Soderbergh delivered taut capers in a spare, direct visual style that rarely strayed beyond the demands of the story. “Out of Sight” had an exasperated, comic flair that didn’t detract from the tension of whether a charming career criminal would deliver on a last big score. “The Limey” is a white-knuckle revenge story that moves with the directness of a ramrod. “Side Effects” fits in nicely with these movies as an urbane, upmarket thriller that keeps you guessing until the end.
TITLE: “Side Effects”
CREDITS: Directed by Steven Soderbergh, written by Scott Z. Burns
RATING: R for brief nudity and sexual themes
RUNNING TIME: 106 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS