Monday, February 18, 2013

"Side Effects"

 3.5 / 5 

A dark gray hangs over Manhattan for most of Side Effects, undulating clouds that threaten to bring something awful at any moment.  They roil and rumble with the kind of uncertain danger that lurks inside Emily Taylor, a tremulous woman struggling with deep depression.

She has ever reason to feel hopeless.  Her handsome husband is getting out of prison after serving time for Wall Street crimes, her low-level job is all they have -- and slowly, she's losing her grip.  It's no surprise, then, that she seeks psychiatric help.  That leads her to try a newly approved anti-depressant, and its side effects may be a little understated on the warning label.

The setup for Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects may seem a bit dry, but the film is as enjoyably unpredictable, and oddly enjoyable, as that looming storm.

It's powered by a fine, deeply considered performance by Rooney Mara as a woman whose desperation  leads her to a drastic act that may or may not have been exacerbated by her experience with the medication prescribed by her psychiatrist (Jude Law).  He has his own demons, including a past allegation of impropriety with a patient and a consulting deal with a big pharmaceutical firm that could well be clouding his medical judgment.

At the risk of saying too much -- saying anything at all could be saying anything too much with this film -- just when you've figured out what kind of movie Side Effects is, it turns into quite another.  But at all stages, Soderbergh's dimly lit scenes and Thomas Newman's antsy, anxious score keep the tension going.

Audiences who prefer their movies to make it clear up front what they're getting are advised to use caution: The opening scenes require patience, the closing scenes require a certain indulgence of credulity.  In certain movies, the audience needs to be a willing participant, and Side Effects gambles mostly wisely that they'll play along through to the end. 

If Side Effects ultimately isn't quite as satisfying and as much of a stunner as it hopes to be, part of that is due to the critical performance of Catherine Zeta-Jones, less a result of her acting skills than her icy, sleek demeanor.  From the moment she comes on screen, you sense she's hiding something, that she's not quite the good doctor she makes herself out to be.  That lingering suspicion and an eleventh-hour revelation about her past are a little hard to get past.

And yet, Side Effects is a superior movie, a sharp-edged, well-constructed movie that seems to be one thing and turns out to be quite another (maybe even more than one other).  Don't let all the talk of psychiatry and pharmacology scare you off -- Side Effects is a sly entertainment, a movie made to watch with mind open to being thrown off-kilter and a nice, big bucket of popcorn.  

Viewed Feb. 18, 2013 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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