I admittedly might have approached Side Effects with an unfair attitude. I went in ready to judge Steven Soderbergh's psychological thriller not as a standalone feature, but as his farewell feature specifically Soderbergh has affirmed that Side Effects will in fact be his final big screen foray, making it difficult for any longtime admirer of the filmmaker to hope for, and expect, a vivacious last hurrah. Without these connotations, Side Effects might not have warranted the same degree of disappointment.
This realization aside, it's still an exhaustive effort to discover what, exactly, Side Effects has to say. With ripe material at its disposal the elements of depression and anxiety and the industries of psychiatry and drug prescription should present any number of interesting, haunting avenues the movie sets itself up to express something new and important.
And for the first 20 minutes or so, it carries on this charade. The story opens on a 28-year-old Emily (Rooney Mara), overwhelmed by her husband's (Channing Tatum) imminent release from prison following a stint for insider trading. The first chapter of the film unites a confused and grief-stricken Mara with psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), whose judgment in prescribing her an experimental new anti-anxiety medication Ablixa is tainted by the pharmaceutical company's monetary offers.
But while this engrossing opening act of Side Effects prepares us for one thing, its remaining hour-and-change delivers another. An abrupt shift in the film's identity occurs at the point where a medicated Emily does the unthinkable, and the movie never returns to form thereafter. Where a stronger film might be able to brand this off as a thrilling twist, a successful exhibition of cinematic sleight-of-hand, Side Effects' 180 just serves to furrow brows. Throughout the bulk of the movie, Side Effects' adopts the persona of a half-cocked whodunit, bouncing around the question of fault regarding a drugged up Emily's malfeasance.
But the execution is sloppy, with foreshadowing clues placed awkwardly throughout. The audience's interest in the cast of characters (with Catherine Zeta-Jones popping out of the woodwork as a former shrink of Emily's) dissolves, as the once vivid figures turn into mere pawns in this game of industrial Clue, regurgitating exposition to carry forth the skeleton of tension that becomes of the film.
Given what they have to work with past the halfway point, the actors deserve commendation, with Mara an especially invigorating presence. Only in the bait-and-switch extended intro are we allowed to see the powerful performers shine, swelling with emotional resonance. This faction of the movie swells with confidence and originality. But then, the point of no return: the meat of Side Effects shies away from this grit, this substance, and leaps headfirst into an empty thriller with, ostensibly, not much to say. And it's a shame, too, because that first chapter really seemed to be gearing up for something worthwhile.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 stars.