FlixChatter Review: Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects

SideEffectsPoster

This supposedly Steven Soderbergh‘s last feature film wasn’t even on my radar, in fact I just saw the trailer the day of the screening a couple of weeks ago. I’m glad I didn’t know anything about this movie and I think the less you read or watch about it the better. In fact, when I went to the screening, the press associate said the studio won’t allow anyone to be admitted to the theater once the film has begun, saying that the opening scene is so key to the plot that showing up late would surely lessen the viewing experience for the viewer.

The opening scene takes place in what looks to be a luxury apartment in Manhattan, belonging to a well-to-do couple Emily (Rooney Mara) and Martin (Channing Tatum). Emily’s husband has just gotten out of jail where he spent a four-year term for insider trading. She should be overjoyed, right? But instead she’s afflicted with recurring bout of depression and suicidal behavior. The doctor who ends up treating her, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), proceeds to prescribe her an anti-depressant. But when a regular drug isn’t enough, he gives her a new one that just came out in the market called Ablixa, suggested by Emily’s former shrink, Dr. Victoria Siebert (Catherine Zeta-Jones). The drug perks Emily up for a while — much to the delight of her husband – but then the drug’s supposed side effect ends up creating more problems than its worth.

At least that’s what Soderbergh wants you to think. When people first saw the trailer or even reading the premise involving a pharmaceutical corporation, they might immediately think of Contagion (which was also written by Scott Z. Burns). Other than the medical-related theme, it can’t be more dissimilar. Soderbergh is known for experimenting on his projects and this one is no different.

As the story progresses, we realize more and more that everyone and everything are not who/what they seem. The character focus alternates between Emily and Dr. Banks, who apparently has some issues on his own and a past incident that catches up with him. The narrative pretty much shifts from being a character study to a whodunnit Hitchcockian thriller laden with plot twists. I find the first act to be much more intriguing, but its um, potency kind of wears off in the second act, recovered slightly in the third though the lurid twist is a bit eye-roll inducing.

SideEffectsMovieStills

I think Side Effects is a deftly-constructed thriller, it’s packed with clever camera work, shrewd acting and appropriately moody atmosphere (thanks largely to Thomas Newman‘s ominous score). Yet somehow the film fails to engage me. Not to mention the lack of emotional connection with any of the characters, made worse by the decidedly morose and unsettling tone of the entire film. A few commenters in the Five for the Fifth post pointed out how some Soderbergh’s films are emotionally-cold, and this one is a perfect example. There is not a single character that I can truly empathize with, maybe Banks’ wife (played by the underrated Vinessa Shaw), who has to put up with her husband’s antics. By the end I feel that they get what they deserve, if only they happen much sooner.

We’ve got another killer heroine from Soderbergh. Instead of the bad-ass action hero in Haywire, this time we’ve got a slightly more rounded character — and more unhinged – but still equally detached. Performance-wise, I think Mara was given the most material to work with and she’s able to tackle the contrasting personalities her character requires. I’ve only seen her in The Social Network, which was brief but memorable. She’s definitely a gifted performer and her glacial aura is put to good use here. Her blank expression suggest there’s something lurking, enhancing the chilling effect. At the same time, her lack of warmth makes it impossible to root for her. Jude Law is pretty good here as he’s the co-lead of the film, a much more sympathetic character despite his flaws. I must say that Law doesn’t have quite have that star quality so when the narrative is focused on him, he doesn’t exactly lights up the screen. All I could say for Zeta-Jones is that perhaps she’s inspired by her husband’s choice of role in his next film when she signed up for this role.

Final Thoughts: Unpredictable? Perhaps. Absorbing? Not really.

Despite the roller-coaster ride that Soderbergh set up for the viewers, this film left me rather underwhelmed. I glanced at my watch a few times as I was watching it, which is never a good sign. I didn’t see some of the twists coming but yet when it happened, I wasn’t all that surprised either. The revelation itself seemed a little too neat that it doesn’t quite pack a punch. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a decent thriller, but it doesn’t leave a level of greatness I expect from Burns and Soderbergh pairing.

Judging from the reaction about his pending retirement, I know a lot of people are disappointed by that and wish the director would stay around. Well pardon me for being indifferent.

3 out of 5 reels

As Tyson has eloquently put in his A Call To Arms post, would you be so kind as to use one of the share buttons below to share my post? I’d sincerely appreciate it. Share… it’s what makes the blogs go around 😀


Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

57 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects

    1. Thanks. I’m just not as impressed with it as the critics do. It’s not the first time I disagree w/ them though. I was initially gonna rate it less but technically it’s very good so I think 3/5 is fair.

    1. Thanks very much. Well, sounds like the critics love this one more than me, won’t be the first time that happens. Thanks for the share. I love your new Bloggers Cut feature btw, I’ve retweeted that as well.

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  2. Ted S.

    I only skimmed through your review there, I’ll give the film a rent when it’s out on BD. Which I assume will be quick since the film hardly got any marketing support from the studio and I’m sure it won’t even make a dent at the box office.

    I don’t really care for the leads much but I’ll see for my two main crushes, Vinessa Shaw and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

    1. Don’t worry Ted, it’s spoiler free. I actually read a bunch of reviews on Rotten Tomatoes that reveal way more than I did. Vinessa Shaw is pretty good here, Zeta-Jones overacted a bit at times. It should be worth a rent though, who knows you might like it a whole lot more than I did.

  3. Nice review. I am usually a fan of Soderbergh, but one of the few films of the director I have not been impressed with was Contagion, and this seems similar to that one. I did include it on m y most anticipated films list in January, so obviously I am looking forward to the thing. I will be seeing it on Tuesday, so who knows.

    1. Thanks Kevyn and really appreciate you sharing this on Reddit! Well, I like some of Soderbergh’s films though he’s not exactly my favorite. I came in with neutral expectations as I hadn’t read barely anything about this film, but it just didn’t wow me. Hope you get more out of it than I did.

  4. Hmm…it definitely sounds intriguing, but I always have a problem with films where I can’t connect with the characters emotionally. It usually feels really dry when films are like that for me. Awesome review though, Ruth!

    1. Hi Ruth! Exactly. When the characters are so cold I find it hard to care about the story. It’s funny that at times I actually root for a villain if he/she are portrayed by an intriguing actor, so it’s not like I can’t root for a flawed character.

  5. Well constructed review! I think I found a lot more to like because my feelings on Mara and Law’s acting were flip-flopped. I really dug Law and thought he lit up the screen, while I thought Mara was a bit cold (as you did mention).

    I’ve always been a huge fan of most of Soderbergh’s stuff (well, at least the stuff that I have seen. The man makes like 5 movies a year) and I think Side Effects is exactly what Contagion should have been. I know the two are very different, but my expectations for both were almost completely opposite.

    I was hoping Contagion was going to be a mysterious pandemic film with lots of twists and turns, while Side Effects was going to be a long and possibly boring look at drugs and how they effect our society (while also tying it into a traditional Soderbergh free-flowing narrative), yet I ended up bored out of my skull (mostly) while watching Contagion and then glued to the screen and deeply invested in Side Effects.

    1. Thanks Jeremy. Well, I don’t know what to say, I guess we just reacted differently on this film. I didn’t dislike any of the performances, it’s just I didn’t care for any of the characters. It’s funny but I actually like Contagion a bit more, well as much as one could enjoy a movie about a deadly outbreak that is, but I was able to connect with some of the characters, i.e. Damon, Winslet, etc. I think with this one the filmmakers were trying to be too clever and piled on all the plot twists by the end that I went, ‘come on!!’

  6. Wow I never thought I’d say this but I’m kind of indifferent too. I mean Traffic was the last film that he wowed me with. What a run though…. Out Of Sight, The Limey, Erin Brockovich and Traffic. I actually liked Haywire even if it was a female Bourne kind of rip off. Gina Carano could probably kick my ass and look sexy doing it..

    I’m probably the only one who really dug And Everything Is Going Fine, the documentary Steven did about Spalding Gray the monologist. A fascinating man who sadly succumbed to depression and ended his life by jumping off a bridge. I loved the monologues he put on film: Swimming to Cambodia (Demme), Monster In A Box (Broomfield) and Gray’s Anatomy (Soderbergh). A fitting tribute to a true storyteller.

    Soderbergh’ll be back. You watch.

  7. I’m avoiding this like the plague. I swear the freakin’ TV spots for this movie annoyed the crap out of me. I can only imagine sitting through the whole film. And then there’s Melissa McCarthy. She has become a one-trick pony.

  8. Sharing is getting around, good to see! Thanks for the mention there Ruth, and I put this post on a few sites. Reddit didnt work for me last night at all so I couldnt put your stuff on there, but I put this on everywhere else. Let me know if anything comes of it 🙂

    1. Thanks Ty! I didn’t see any traffic from Reddit today but quite a few from yesterday. I guess it’s definitely based on luck. Thanks again for the share.

  9. Great review, Ruth! Glad you appreciated the craft of the film. It’s interesting to read your take on the performances. I thought Law and Mara were terrific. Love that you mentioned Thomas Newman’s score, which I actually think is better than his Oscar-nominated one from Skyfall.

    1. Oh yeah, I think it’s well-crafted, though it doesn’t guarantee that you’d automatically love it. It’s just the kind of movies that leave me cold to be honest.

  10. Great review Ruth! at least it gave me a perspective to watch or not to watch.
    I am not a fan of any of the cast nor the director…and reading your review about the plot and the cast…I think I’ll pass on this movie

  11. “… I know a lot of people are disappointed by that and wish the director would stay around. Well pardon me for being indifferent.” – Ouch! 😉

    Superlative review here Ruth. I actually quite like the sound of this one but i didn’t think Contagion was as good as it could have been. I’ll give this a look but I won’t be expecting big things.

    1. Hello Mark! Ahah, a bit harsh on that last line perhaps but that’s how I really feel. I mean he’s done some good films but people seem to hold Soderbergh up in such a pedestal. This film does sound intriguing, and the first half definitely had such a promising buildup. Curious to hear what you think once you see it Mark.

      1. I do quite like Soderbergh but sometimes there’s film’s of his that I’ll avoid. I probably would have avoided this one but the more i hear about the storyline, the more I’m interested. I will give this shot. Thanks Ruth.

        1. Which of his films you do like Mark? I think for me, Traffic is perhaps his best work. I thought Contagion was better than I expected but I didn’t have much to begin with and The Informant! was a bit disappointing despite the good performance from Damon.

          1. I really liked Traffic, Out of sight, Solaris and Sex, Lies and Videotape. Didn’t care much for The informant either. Contagion was good but I expected a bit more. One that I really want to see is his earlier film King of the Hill.

  12. Excellent review, Ruth. I appreciate your balanced assessment of this movie. It sounds like it was very well crafted. It’s a shame it was so difficult to connect with.

    1. Thanks Steph. Well I think when a filmmaker experiments with things, it doesn’t always work. The piled-on twists in the last half hour seems too much for me, and yeah, it’s just so emotionally cold that it actually give me chills as I leave the theater (and not from the Minnesota Winter mind you).

  13. Great review, Ruth. Interesting tidbit about the press not allowing anyone to enter the theater late — kind of reminds me of Hitchcock doing the same for Psycho. I haven’t decided yet if I want to seek this out in the theater or not. Sounds like I wouldn’t be missing too much if I just waited for the rental.

    1. Oh right I forgot that Hitch also did the same thing about forbidding the audience to get in late. I think Soderbergh’s channeling him here, though I’m not sure it really achieves a level of greatness.

  14. I generally like Soderbergh’s movies and the very elegant atmosphere of his movies, the story sounds a bit cliche but I hope Mara is good here, I loved her in Dragon Tattoo. I’ll definitely see this one when I have a chance. Great review!

    1. Thanks. Ranking the cast? You mean in terms of how good they are in this film? Well, I think Mara is the best here as she’s given the most to do, second is Law, who’s sort of the co-lead of the movie. Then Zeta-Jones and Tatum, who has a brief but memorable role.

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  16. Finally, mostly caught up with my entries, so as promised, I am…VISITING!!!! 😀 Very beautiful page you have here, by the way. Are you a professional web designer? If you are, what are your rates? I may consider hiring you one day, haha. 🙂

    I agree wholeheartedly with two of your main points; the first being it’s better you walk in knowing less about this film in order to enjoy it, and the second being it’s difficult to really empathize with any of the characters because they’re all so effed up.

    If you liked Mara here, you might want to consider watching her in the 2011 release of Girl with a Dragon Tattoo with Daniel Craig.

    1. Hi there, glad to see you stop by & keeping up w/ your promise 😀 Thanks for the kind words, yes I’m actually a web designer but I’m just using a WordPress template for now, kinda lame eh?

      Glad you agree w/ my points, I’m just not wowed by the piled-on plot twists and since I don’t really care for the characters, it made even less of an impact.

      Oh I’m not into such dark movies, so I’m gonna have to pass on the Dragon Tattoo series 😀

      1. Yeah, I’m really, really bad about visiting in general, but when I say I’ll stop by, I’ll stop by. It just might not be right away, lol. I’m one of those people that have to go through their checklist one thing at a time. Twitter is the only thing I’m really consistent with, but sometimes I even slack on that.

        I remember being very bored and worried I blew my money on some overly hyped movie the first half. When things started to pick up though, I definitely got a little more interested.

        Dark anything isn’t really my thing either, but Dragon Tattoo wasn’t so bad. No less dark than this movie was. At least, I don’t think so.

        1. What’s your Twitter handler? I’m on there a lot too, I’m a Twitter addict.

          I think based on what I saw/read on Dragon Tattoo, it’s definitely darker than this one and also gorier. I’m not good with brutal violence and a lot of my friends have warned me about that series.

  17. Great review. I found the film emotionally cold too, and didn’t like that aspect of the film. It’s a shame because as with ‘A Dangerous Method’, I was looking forward to this one big time coz it includes psychiatry and mental illness references. Besides, I did not find ‘twists’ that great or ‘mind-blowing’ – just a series of ‘confusions’ thrown in to save the film from slipping into boredom.

  18. Hmmm, I was actually thinking I might not enjoy this as much as most of the critics. I’ll give it a shot now that it’s coming to Redbox in the next few weeks, but I feel like I will agree with you on this one.

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