REVIEW: Soderbergh nails thriller in 'Side Effects'

I meant to get this review up Friday to coincide with the release, but I did not. Mea culpa.

Perhaps the highest compliment I can pay Side Effects is that immediately after it was over I wanted to see it again. I barely feel comfortable reviewing it having only seen it once, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had that feeling. In movies, as in life, it’s rare to actually be treated like an adult these days (…he said as he wrote on his blog wearing nothing but Cheetos crumbs and underpants in the middle of the day). We’re so used to every plot point and expository story nugget being slammed into our numbed brains with a fungo bat, that when a movie actually requires careful attention to detail and deductive reasoning, suddenly we feel ill-equipped. We find ourselves spitting out mouthfuls of slobbery milk duds to ask our seat mates what the hell just happened. (That’s right, “we,” just go with me here). I’m saying, Side Effects is like that, the rare movie that treats us Milk Dud eaters like we’re smarter than we are.

I don’t mean Side Effects is confusing in the way that Chris Nolan movies are confusing, where relentless, deliberate subterfuge is the dominant narrative device. Side Effects can be hard to follow, but it doesn’t feel like Soderbergh trying to confuse you. It feels more like he’s just a step ahead of us and he’s a little too excited to tell what comes next to play catch up. It’s an honest thriller. You follow along, and then surprising things happen, in such a way that at the time it seems so out of left field that it might take half a scene to catch up. There’s a way to confuse the audience in a way that feels sloppy, and a way to confuse us in a way that’s intriguing. Side Effects does the latter, like some of Eminem’s old singles, where he’d say something that almost sounded like complete gibberish, but you’d rewind or hear it a couple times and go, holy shit, all of that actually made sense. It wasn’t just a cheap trick. Sadly, I don’t get to rewind at movie screenings, a fact that security has been over with me in great detail, but it seems important that I’d want to.

You’ll notice I’m not doing much summary in this review (and I’ve heard that the perfect review is 70 percent summary with 30 percent analysis or something like that). That’s because Side Effects relies on suspense and surprise more than probably anything I’ve seen in the last five years, and I’m not going to ruin it for you. There are no guns, no car chases, no explosions, vampires, zombies, or lesbians – okay, well there might be some lesbians – and nothing against those things, but it’s damned impressive when a movie can make a dry, Law & Order-ish crime story as exciting as exploding spaceships.

What I can tell you is that the movie opens with Channing Tatum, released from prison after four years for insider trading. He comes home to a strained marriage with Rooney Mara, who plays screwed up and conflicted in the way that Kristen Stewart has made a career of attempting to do but usually not quite pulling off. Mara’s character is in a deep funk, and Side Effects sort of telegraphs a movie about her depression, but then quickly becomes something else entirely. And thank God, because depressed people are the most boring people in the entire world. Cutesily wounded ones (a favorite of indie screenwriters) are a close second. I swear I would jump out a second story window if you tried to make me watch Girl Interrupted again. Anyway, that’s not what this one’s about. We’re introduced to a psychologist played by Jude Law, who before you know it, becomes the main character. And this is the kind of role that makes you remember holy shit, Jude Law is really f*cking good actor. I don’t remember whether it was tabloid stories, bad roles, or general ubiquitousness that made me forget that about him, but Side Effects made me feel bad that I did. C-Tates, meanwhile, who I loved so much in 21 Jump Street and Magic Mike, seems to have backslid just a tad, in a sweet-but-dopey-Finance-Guy role with a slight, unfortunate resemblance to Shia LaBeouf in Wall Street 2, one of the hokiest lame roles of all time. Not completely C-Tates’ fault, but unfortunate.

Like the rom-com, the thriller has been degraded in recent years, by directors who want to be Hitchcock but don’t have the chops, churning out forgettable shrug factories with names I can’t even remember. It’s only once in a long while that you get a The Insider or a Michael Clayton, and Side Effects is that kind of diamond in the rough.

My buddy Laremy has seen it twice already and thinks it’s Soderbergh’s best movie. Having seen Side Effects only once myself, I cautiously give the edge to Magic Mike and Out of Sight, which are a little more fun. Side Effects is smart and exciting and well crafted, but there’s also a character in it – Jude Law’s wife, played by Vinessa Shaw, who was once Jonathan Brandis’s love interest in Ladybugs, a fact that trying to remember will bug you for the entire movie if you don’t know going in – who’s one of those obnoxious thriller-prop characters who moves the plot forward only by reacting in angry and not-believable ways to almost everything her husband does. You know how in rom-coms there’s always a moment late in the second act where one of the leads refuses to accept the other’s generally-good motives, even though it seems pretty clear to everyone in the audience? And it’s not really believable at all except as a reason for one of them to have a last-minute epiphany and run through an airport somewhere? Vinessa Shaw’s character is kind of like that. Not a lot going on besides vinegar and well-timed frowns. Thankfully she’s not in it much. There’s also a plot twist or two that are a little bit… CSI Miami. Ultimately, that’s what makes Side Effects a movie to me and not a film. But Side Effects is damned good at being a movie.