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By Daniel Lammin
25th February 2013

Steven Soderbergh is retiring. The Oscar-winning ex-wunderkind is calling it a day. After crafting some of the most iconic films of the 1990s and early 2000s, including ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape’ (1989), ‘Traffic’ (2000) and ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ (2000), he only has his long-gestating Liberace biopic for HBO to complete, and then he’s done. And with that one being for television, his latest film, ‘Side Effects’ might be the last time we ever see his work on the big screen. That’s a big weight for a film to carry - not just being the work of a major director, but the final work. It’s not often we get to see something like that. So is this tidy little thriller a worthy final statement, or just a minor footnote?

Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) has spent four years waiting for her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) to be released from jail after being found guilty of insider trading. With the couple reunited, everything seems to be okay, until Emily’s dormant depression begins to surface. Fearing for her life, and with Martin’s help, she seeks treatment from psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). Banks believes that help is within reach for Emily, and after consulting with her previous psychiatrist Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones) on her history, he prescribes a relatively new medication called Ablixa. And it seems to work, with Emily and Martin’s marriage beginning to fall back into place... until a very sudden and completely unexpected side effect leads to a shocking tragedy.


Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z. Burns have worked together previously on the impressive plague thriller ‘Contagion’ (2011), so one would be safe to assume that ‘Side Effects’ would be a repeat success. The premise is certainly a rich one, and one that hasn’t been explored as much before, that of anti-depressants and the unusual physical and psychological side effects they can have as they change the chemical balance of the body. Burns constructs the film around a central event, a twist no-one would be able to see coming, and one that gives the narrative enough boost to keep the energy going. Unfortunately, the final destination for the film is a slightly convoluted one, and the pay-off at the end isn’t without needing a bit of explaining. It also begins to hint at the obsession the U.S. has with prescribing medications to "fix" emotional illnesses rather than cognative therapy, but either drops this idea quickly or choses to ignore the issue. ‘Side Effects’ is a film that can’t seem to decide what kind of thriller it is, just that a thriller is what it’s aiming for. It doesn’t help that Soderbergh doesn’t seem to have his heart in this one. The usual "detached observer" quality we’ve come to expect is still present, but there’s none of the panache, none of the cinematic snap that’s so distinct about his best work. It all seems very pedestrian for him, especially after the giddy silliness he created with ‘Magic Mike’ only last year. There’s nothing particularly distinct about this film, nothing lasting or memorable. Even Thomas Newman can’t seem to muster up a score worth talking about. ‘Side Effect’ is a technically competent and handsome film, but that was what we expected.

‘Side Effects’ is a film that can’t seem to decide what kind of thriller it is, just that a thriller is what it’s aiming for.

The performances are also across the board technically competent. Initially, the film places its focus on Emily, and Rooney Mara continues to demonstrate her talents. It’s always a tough ask playing depression on screen, and Mara does an excellent job recreating the sensation of the "toxic mist rolling in". In fact, just how good she is you won’t realise until her character makes her major right turn. Jude Law is as exciting to watch as ever, and continues his trend of choosing interesting and unusual roles. Channing Tatum doesn’t have much to do, but does his part well, and Catherine Zeta-Jones is so delicious, she makes you wish she was around more these days. The truth is, though, much like the technical side of the film, it’s all what we would expect from these actors. There are no surprises, and you don’t walk away remembering terrific moments or with any lasting impressions. Everyone is great, but not much more than that.

It seems that the guy who started his career with a bang has ended it with a whimper. ‘Side Effects’ is a handsome film, a tidy and clever thriller, and an entertaining way to spend two hours, but once the credits begin, you won’t think much more about it. Considering he has spent most of his career trying to get it made, we might find Steven Soderbergh more emotionally and artistically invested in his HBO Liberace biopic - but in this, his last trip to the cinema, his heart just doesn’t seem to be in it.

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