Steven Soderbergh could use a break. Since 2000, he's made 16 feature films, whose subject matters run the gamut from casino heists (Ocean's Eleven) to drug cartels (Traffic) to whistleblowers (The Informant!) to physically-revealing title characters (Magic Mike, Erin Brockovich). He's still waiting to release his HBO biopic of Liberace, but if he's really retiring from directing so he can paint or whatever, Side Effects is a great way to go out.
In Side Effects, Emily (Rooney Mara) has her fair share of nervous tics. She pulls her hair, she shifts her eyes from side to side, she starts crying at fancy dinner parties when the food and the company look perfectly fine. Her hunky lunkhead of a husband, Martin (Channing Tatum), just got out of prison, where he served hard time for insider trading. He wants to get back on top, but Emily can't handle it; within the first twenty jittery minutes, she's seeing psychiatrist Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law) in the hospital.
Dr. Banks is a solid doctor with a successful practice and loving, if constantly scowling, wife (Vinessa Shaw, who you won't recognize until your hot date whisper-screams, "That's Allison from Hocus Pocus!"). But he's not above getting paid a hefty sum from a pharmaceutical company to try out its new anti-anxiety drug Deletrex on his patients, who agree because their prescriptions are free. Emily asks to be put on a different one (Ablixa) that her friend recommended when her anxiety worsens, so Banks agrees. What he doesn't realize is how crazy and even dangerous the drug's side effects would be.
As his career is slowly engulfed in scandal, Banks becomes the emotional and moral center of the film. Law handles the role of the earnest, digger-of-an-increasingly-deep-hole doctor well, but it's Mara who puts on the best performance. Something about her just makes you feel so uncomfortable and anxious whenever she's on screen, but her presence is magnetic. Tatum plays his part pretty one-note, but Catherine Zeta-Jones proves she can still steal scenes from a good movie in her role as Emily's mysterious former therapist, Dr. Siebert.
It's tough to elaborate on more of the plot without revealing some of its more devilish -- bordering on Hitchcockian -- twists and turns, where the scandal becomes more convoluted (some might say improbable) than you could have imagined. But it's fun and engrossing -- and if the artificially-created tension of the first scene wasn't there, it could have been even better. Steven Soderbergh, I hope you're not finished, but if you are, it must feel good to end your career on a high note. Grade: A-
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