3 and 1/2 out of 4 stars
Claiming that "Side Effects" will be his last effort as a feature film director, Steven Soderbergh is pulling something of a career full-circle. Recalling the uneasy edge, mental hopscotch and high-wire tension of his 1989 debut ("sex, lies and videotape"), "Side Effects" is a taut thriller with a grocery bag's worth of plot twists and a visceral slam-dunk ending that makes for a glorious swan song.
In her first film since her star-making turn in the English language adaptation of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," Rooney Mara takes the lead as Emily, a saint of a woman who has waited patiently while her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) served a four-year prison stint for insider trading. A longtime sufferer of depression, Emily has the gait of a zombie with sky blue orbs swimming in tears and seems to be immune to any and all forms of medication.
After an apparent suicide attempt, Emily comes under the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), a high-dollar Manhattan psychiatrist with a new wife, a stepson and far too much on his plate. With the wife unemployed and bills mounting, Banks accepts the offer of a pharmaceutical company rolling out a new anti-depression med. As Emily has failed to respond to everything her previous Connecticut-based shrink (Catherine Zeta-Jones as Dr. Victoria Seibert) had prescribed, Banks rightfully feels this new medication, along with intense one-on-one therapy, could be Emily's salvation.
Things appear to be going well until someone turns up dead and questions of professional ethics and criminal blame surface in its wake. The news networks and tabloid papers swarm all over the story -- one that is perfect for a scandal-obsessed public, ambulance chasing attorneys and physicians trapped between legal culpability and their Hippocratic oath.
With his world rapidly imploding, Banks does what any person with even a modicum of self-preservation and a strong working knowledge of the human psyche would. This is the point where "Side Effects" goes from being something of a lazy symptom drama to an ear-pinning paranoid Hitchcock procedural thriller that never reveals too much too soon and thwarts any would-be gumshoe audience members from thinking they've got it all figured out.
No longer the pretty-boy heartthrob he was a decade ago (or Tatum is now), Law is in that touchy transitional phase of his career between leading man and character actor. If "Side Effects" is any kind of indicator, he'll be well suited for any role any director that is smart enough offers him. With his pale blue peepers, chiseled lantern jaw and poker face, Law has always projected a kind of emotional indifference some people -- make that most people -- mistake for boredom or a lack of talent. The success or failure of the film rests far more on Law's shoulders than it does Mara's and his character grows more mysterious the more we get to know him.
As busy as any actress her age could hope to be, Zeta-Jones is in the same boat as Law and doesn't seem bothered that she won't be considered for leading lady roles any longer. As in the lackluster "Broken City," her character here has a specific agenda and won't reveal it to anyone even if it means failure or outright danger. The come-hither allure of her earlier career is now projected as something far more menacing and sinister. She should do evil more often.
Having just played the title character in Soderbergh's last movie ("Magic Mike"), Tatum isn't given much to do here but does it well. In a manner similar to his three co-stars, he's most effective when remaining flat and even keel. He's the least important major character but this is a great title to have on his resume.
While the two characters are miles apart in attitude, demeanor and appearance, Mara's Emily here and Lisbeth from "Tattoo" do have a great deal in common. They are charged with being the emotional core of the film while essentially remaining emotionless the entire time. It would have been so easy for Mara to go wacked-out Cybil with this character but by playing it so deadpan cool, we're never permitted to get inside her head until she and Soderbergh invite us in.
As far as Soderbergh now being retired ... don't count on it to last very long. He's said he wants to be a painter which is a great hobby -- just ask Tony Bennett. He's too young, come too far and has honed his craft too well to get out of the game now -- especially since he has no big studios to answer to or past favors to fulfill. It's in his blood -- he'll be back and we'll all be the better for it. (Open Road)