The main thing to keep in mind while watching Steven Soderbergh’s thriller Side Effects is not to take the movie too seriously or else you’ll feel betrayed by the end. The movie, written by Soderbergh’s frequent collaborator Scott Z. Burns ( The Informant!), is much more Magic Mike than Contagion — the filmmakers are above all else having fun here — although the backdrop of psychiatrists, pharmaceutical companies and the potential side effects of new-to-market prescription meds ground the story in a serious reality that initially feels like an exposé.
Rooney Mara stars as Emily, a young woman who begins to suffer from anxiety and depression after her husband (Channing Tatum) is released from prison after serving a five-year sentence for insider trading. For help, she reaches out to a psychiatrist (Jude Law), who consults with Emily’s previous doctor (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and prescribes a drug that turns out to have wildly unpredictable side effects.
The movie, too, is impossible to predict — to reveal what happens next would be criminal — but to say that Side Effects constantly changes gears and veers off into surprising directions doesn’t spoil anything. The film is so stacked with surprises, it might have all felt a bit much if not for Soderbergh, whose traditionally cool, clinical approach makes (almost) everything seem plausible.
Once again working as his own cinematographer (under the pseudonym Peter Andrews), Soderbergh does subtle things with the camera, giving you subliminal clues as to what is really going on (in one shot, as two characters agree to a shady deal, the actors lean their heads into the plane of focus, a symbol that their plan has been crystallized). More than half of the movie takes place in offices where people talk, but the director pays careful attention to spatial placements, colors and points of view: There isn’t a single dull shot in the film, a testament to how engaged and inspired Soderbergh was by the material. Side Effects is his last theatrical film before his self-imposed hiatus (a Liberace biopic will air on HBO this summer), which is a shame, because he’s working at the top of his game here.
Mara, who spent much of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo hidden beneath strange hairstyles and piercings, proves to have the talent to back up her hype: Emily is emotionally distraught and vulnerable and prone to jags of crying, but Mara makes you empathize with her instead of pitying her: She does justice to a fiendishly complicated character. Tatum fares well as her supportive husband who can’t understand what has happened to his wife, and Law and Zeta-Jones exude confidence and depth as the two doctors who may possibly be the best-looking psychiatrists on the planet (Zeta-Jones’ glasses are so perfect, they deserve a screen credit of their own).
Side Effects is a throwback to the style of preposterous thrillers that were common in the 1980s ( Malice, Bad Influence, The Bedroom Window, Masquerade, Fatal Attraction) that were often implausible but still worked because of the skill of the actors and the filmmakers. If you like Side Effects, you’ll probably want to see it again: It’s a completely different film the second time around. The movie plays you like a chump, but in the most entertaining manner possible; it’s a weightless but hugely enjoyable shell game.