Here’s a tricky, playfully daft thriller from an always subversive director
Rooney Mara in Side Effects
Film Title: Side Effects
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Starring: Jude Law
Running Time: 90 min
Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Starring Jude Law, Rooney Mara, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Channing Tatum, Vinessa Shaw, Ann Dowd 15A cert, gen release, 105 min
If this puzzling, often very enjoyable medical thriller were directed by almost any film-maker other than Steven Soderbergh, you would be tempted to diagnose it with genre identity disorder.
In its opening section, Side Effects plays out like a sober study of Big Pharma’s well-documented ethical outrages. Smooth, suave Jude Law plays a psychiatrist caring for a woman with severe bi-polar disorder (Rooney Mara). The drug he prescribes works at first, but soon his patient begins to exhibit extreme side effects. Most worryingly, she suffers from bouts of sleepwalking that eventually cause her to do something awful that we probably shouldn’t detail in depth.
The action is punctuated with debates on the pharmaceutical companies’ grubby strategies. Over dinner, various professionals detail the lavish holidays the firms offer as part of their efforts to flog their medicinal compounds. We see Law luring another patient towards participating in a dubiously constructed trial. So far, so serious.
Then something deeply strange happens. With one crazily upending plot turn – the first of many – the film lurches towards a school of fan-the-armpits penny-dreadful that makes Lee Child seem like George Eliot. Unlikely schemes are revealed. Möbius strips of story coil implausibly within one another.
Given Soderbergh’s taste for self-conscious playfulness, we can probably assume that the jarring shift is intended. But that doesn’t make the later sections any easier to swallow.
The film is shot with the director’s trademark glassy precision. The actors all gobble up their roles with admirable enthusiasm: Law worries very effectively; Catherine Zeta- Jones is fearsome as another, unstoppably ambitious psychiatrist; Mara looks washed out throughout. But they are asked to jump through far too many inconveniently positioned narrative hoops.
Soderbergh tells us that this is the last theatrical release of his career. It’s an odd choice. The film is certainly entertaining. But it doesn’t have the weight even of his recent hit Magic Mike. Mind you, that supposed retirement could just be another of his self-reverential gags.