Steven Soderbergh has spent his career displaying a gift for genre diversity, and in “Side Effects,” the director’s final theatrical film, he fittingly melds a few types of movies, emerging with a largely satisfying thriller. Things kick off with the emotional unraveling of Emily (Rooney Mara), a depressed Manhattanite whose husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), has just been released from prison for insider trading. Emily sees Dr. Banks (Jude Law), who prescribes the latest and greatest happy pill, but when apparent side effects drive Emily to commit unspeakable acts, the heat of the case falls as much on Banks as it does on his patient.
Thus, the murky tale of a troubled girl coincides with the plight of a good man losing face, giving the audience options of whom to care and root for. Evoking everything from “Primal Fear” and “Rosemary’s Baby” to “Dial M for Murder” and TV’s “Homeland,” the script by Scott Z. Burns oozes paranoia and conspiracy, and Soderbergh’s classy helming of the material (which includes the use of a killer Thomas Newman score) makes much of it feel artful and new.
But there’s yet more layers in this onion-esque enigma, and as more are peeled back, the less appeal the film retains. What begins as an offbeat mutual character study becomes a rather boilerplate twistfest, and one that’s ultimately wrapped up too cleanly to boot.
Where “Side Effects” scores is in its pharma-industry commentary, which explores the real potential dangers of the fine print on new drugs, and how Emily’s particular case is very bad for business. More interesting still is the questions it raises about therapist-patient discourse, and what hardships may come, legal or otherwise, to the doctor whose couch-dweller falls to pieces.
As said patient, Mara is compelling, making good on the promise of her “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” Oscar nomination, which felt somewhat unearned at the time. She’s the perfect dark dame to tackle this tricky role, which, in an almost film-noir style, often leaves you uncertain if she’s femme fatale or damsel in distress.
Two-and-half reels out of four
Now playing at area theaters
As lush as costume dramas get, Joe Wright’s visionary translation of Leo Tolstoy’s classic is a marvel to behold, set on actual stages and choreographed like a lavish Russian musical. Leading the cast is corset queen Keira Knightley, who makes antiheroine Anna a character all her own, doomed by her passion and inability to find happiness. Breathtakingly shot, designed and directed, it’s one of 2012’s very best.
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