I was between film-critic gigs when “The Crying Game” came out, and I’ve always felt like I dodged a bullet on that one, since it’s impossible to discuss the movie without disclosing the Big Reveal that made the film such an audience favorite. Last year’s “Cabin in the Woods” was similarly tricky, but at least that one allowed the opportunity to discuss the setup without getting too specific about the twists.
That’s the approach I’m going to have to take with “Side Effects,” although my real prescription is that you stop reading now, avoid all reviews and blabbermouths, and go see the movie yourself before anyone tells you anything.
It’s terrific, and it’s entertaining, but a great deal of the pleasure of watching it comes from having the rug pulled out from under you.
Still here? Well, I warned you, but I’ll do what I can to avoid giving away the goods.
Emily (Rooney Mara) is a young wife living in Manhattan and looking forward to the imminent release of her husband Martin (Channing Tatum), a Wall Street hotshot who has been serving time for insider trading. (His fall from grace included their having to give up their estate in Greenwich for a small walk-up in the city.)
Even when Martin returns home, Emily grapples with depression, at one point attempting suicide by driving her car into a wall. The cops send her off to psychiatric observation and the care of Dr. Jonathan Banks (Jude Law); he wants to hospitalize her, but she assures him that if he’ll release her, she will begin seeing him several times a week for therapy.
Emily tries various anti-depressants that Banks prescribes to her, none of which seem to do the trick. But Banks has been put on the payroll of a big pharmaceutical company to test out a new drug, Ablixa, so he prescribes it to her. And then…
You’ll get nothing more from me on the plot front. What I can say about “Side Effects” is that writer Scott Z. Burns and director Steven Soderbergh (who previously collaborated on “Contagion” and “The Informant!”) do a bang-up job of setting you up to expect one kind of movie and then delivering another.
Based on how the story gets rolling, you could see the film as an anti-anti-depressant jeremiad (sometimes delivered with all of the subtlety of Tom Cruise lecturing Matt Lauer), an examination of how only low-level financiers serve jail time for the sins of their bosses, or even as what director Mark Rappaport, in “From the Journals of Jean Seberg,” called “the spectacle of a woman losing her mind,” which has been the stuff of countless plays, movies and operas.
But then “Side Effects” isn’t really any of those things — or, in any event, not just any of those things — and therein lies the fun.
The cast, which also includes Catherine Zeta-Jones as Emily’s former therapist, plays the material deftly, allowing us to change allegiances as Burns’ twisty script tells us more and more about these characters. (Law, in particular, does standout work here.) Soderbergh’s chilly cinematography (once again performed under his pseudonym “Peter Andrews”) perfectly captures the state of mind of the players while also underscoring — well, I can’t say.
If Soderbergh makes good on his threat to retire, “Side Effects” reminds us of what we’ll be missing — he’s that rare filmmaker who can push big-name actors to new and interesting levels and who can still surprise audiences without making them feel duped or cheated. Go see it before someone spoils the fun.