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Side Effects (2013)

Thriller Rated R

Side Effects gets trickier as it goes along, yet somehow less involving. What begins as a fairly intriguing drama – about a troubled young woman caught up in contemporary pharma culture – turns into a shifty, seedy thriller. Some might welcome the injection of genre excitability; I was left wondering what happened to a good story.

Rooney Mara stars as Emily Taylor, a tremulous new wife whose husband (Channing Tatum) has just been released from prison for insider trading. She’s struggling to adjust to his return and seeks help from a therapist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law). A decent guy who’s nonetheless loose with his prescription pad – at one point he pops a pill at his wife (Vinessa Shaw) to calm her down for a job interview – Banks is soon sending Emily through a revolving door of medications in an effort to curtail her swinging moods.

Much will be made about Side Effects being a coming-out party for Mara, who made a quick but lasting impression in The Social Network and then struck a decidedly different pose in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. This marks her first real starring role, and she makes good on that early promise. She wields a stare that’s at once defiant and helpless, so that Emily becomes an unnerving loose cannon. And that’s before the film’s narrative gymnastics kick in. Once they do, Mara’s performance gets showier (though not necessarily better).

As the twists piled on, I found them increasingly strained and eventually alienating.

Truth be told, Side Effects belongs to Jude Law. The British actor hasn’t given this lived-in of a performance in years. Banks is an endlessly fascinating character, a cheery perpetuator of a sinister system of which he seems blithely unaware (shades of Gigolo Joe, perhaps?) Soft-spoken, with a gentle smile, Banks always means well, whether he’s offering full disclosure to his patients about a drug study he’s agreed to participate in or deflating the power of a bad dream for his sleepless stepson. I’d want this guy as my therapist too, except for the disquieting way he – and his patients – unwittingly become pawns for the pharmaceutical-industrial complex.

Side Effects is directed by Steven Soderbergh, and for a while I thought this was going to be a minor variation on his exhaustive Traffic. But the script by Scott Z. Burns – who also worked with Soderbergh on the very Traffic-like Contagion, as well as The Informant! – suddenly veers in another direction. Any real-world implications are left behind, as well as the best parts of Law’s performance.

As the twists piled on, I found them increasingly strained and eventually alienating. Many of Soderbergh’s movies are cold to begin with; they operate less as narratives than film-theory experiments. Side Effects begins as the former, but by the end it feels like a genre exercise being put under the Soderbergh microscope.