Steven Soderbergh recently announced his retirement from making feature films—and it was a bleak day for those who think "genre" is a dirty word to movie lovers. Because if Soderbergh has proven anything over the course of his 20-plus-year filmmaking career, it's that there's no broad concept that can't be executed with professionalism and style: caper comedies (Ocean's Eleven through Thirteen), science-fiction (Solaris), tough-guy crime tales (The Limey), procedural thriller (Contagion).
His work certainly elevates Side Effects, the kind of thriller we might all be rolling our eyes at if pretty much anyone else had made it. The set-up finds Emily Taylor (Rooney Mara) reunited with her husband Martin (Channing Tatum) after he has spent four years in prison for insider trading. But Emily's history of depression re-emerges. After a variety of medications don't seem to do the trick, her psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), prescribes a newer pill that seems to have Emily on the road back to normalcy. But one particular side effect has unexpectedly terrible consequences.
For much of Side Effects' first half, Soderbergh steers viewers deftly toward the tragic event foreshadowed in the opening shot. The structure of the screenplay by Scott Z. Burns (Contagion) makes it unclear whether the focus of the story will ultimately be Emily or Dr. Banks, giving us plenty of time both with Emily's struggles to hold herself together and with Banks' interactions with pharmaceutical company reps ready to pay him for "studies" introducing their new drugs to his patients.
Then, Side Effects abruptly turns sideways. The specific nature of that shift veers into spoiler territory, so those specifics are best avoided. And while it's initially surprising, it's also somewhat disappointing as the narrative becomes almost entirely about untangling the "what really happened" part—and groaning at the fairly ridiculous revelations and coincidences at work—rather than digging into deeper questions about the consequences of America's magic-pill culture.
Yet surface-level satisfaction is something Soderbergh rarely has trouble achieving. He leads his actors to performances that convey a spiky realism even in the middle of a plot based on an elaborate conspiracy. It's a kinda-dumb movie that nevertheless feels smart.
That's the upgrade Soderbergh brings to a movie: He's a director who never treats his material as though he's slumming it, just because the story isn't about crusading single moms or complex international politics. Side Effects is the kind of movie you get when a filmmaker respects his audience enough to work his hardest on everything he does, even if plenty of people wouldn't even notice if he only gave 60 percent effort.
Rooney Mara, Jude Law, Channing Tatum