Betrayal is great fodder for a thriller, especially in the upscale versions that classy Steven Soderbergh usually directs. One character (or more) betraying another (or others) leading onwards to murder is good for guessing games if shot slickly and/or wittily.
But when a film betrays its audience (as happens here in violation of certain narrative conventions), it can seem like an act of desperation. Side Effects, a case in point, ends up revealing a weakness of imagination. We are encouraged visually and in terms of dialogue, and then the pretty damn good first half of the movie has to go and reveal its trickery, and the audience learns how it was deceived.
Too bad. The subject–the side effects of psychoactive drugs in our medicated culture–is a terrific one. But once that device is employed, Soderbergh is left with a tattered melodramatic conceit freshened up by a (tasteless) hint of lesbianism and financial impropriety. Good actors, like the aging Jude Law, the always-mysterious Rooney Mara and the kiln-baked Catherine Zeta-Jones, are saddled with some tricky (read: deceptive) dialogue. These performers deserve better.
Here’s the deal: A shrink (Law) has a new patient (Mara) suffering from depression. She’s given an embrace of pharmacopoeia, including a brand-spanking-new drug, which, we’re led to believe, creates side effects that include the lady in question possibly murdering her cute hubby (Channing Tatum), just out of prison.
Now, the film asks, who’s guilty? Mara, in a side-effects trance? Or the shrink who gave her the new anti-depressant? Or Soderbergh, for staging the intriguing trickiness of the first half of the film, only to attempt to cheat the audience in a busy, deceptive denouement? A better storyline might have been Channing Tatum’s fate in prison.
The Honolulu audience groaned when all was revealed and the film twisted itself out of shape while asking us to believe who did what to whom. Among the questions not asked by Soderbergh: Why? How? Loopholes abound.
The verdict: The first half of this thriller is ingenious, but its explication is tortured and not very believable. The plot is made up of bits and pieces of a dozen or so thrillers of the last two decades, and strains to convince. The screenplay by Scott Frank (Contagion) is sub-par, and all of Soderbergh’s usual verisimilitude can’t cover up its weaknesses. In interviews, Soderbergh has told us that this is his last film, and we hope that’s not true–unless the subsequent ones would be equally lame. Maybe it’s just a case of him suffering thriller fatigue.
Audiences ought to bring their own meds as they enter the theater. Otherwise, they’ll see a thriller that is merely ludicrous and exploitative, and not worth their while.